Andrew Iwanicki spent 70 days lying in bed to help NASA research the effects of space on human health. It was the polar opposite of a walk in the park.
Would you lie in bed for 70 days straight in the name of science? It might seem relaxing to stay off your feet for a while, but the novelty would wear off pretty quickly. Still, it seemed like a good idea to Andrew Iwanicki — at least, after NASA offered him $18,000 to try it out.
The CFT 70 project aimed to study the effects of space travel on the human body by monitoring study participants over a 70-day period of immobility. Iwanicki found an advertisement for the study on Reddit in 2013, and after an extensive medical review, he was selected from a pool of 25,000 applicants to join the study. In August 2014, he flew over to Houston, Texas to enter the study at the NASA Flight Analog Research Unit. Before the study began, Iwanicki underwent weeks of physical exams and scans to test the limits of his body. Once NASA had a good idea of how his body operated under normal conditions, it was time to get in bed.
In an article for Vice, Iwanicki explains that he was used to an active lifestyle, so the first five days were painful. As if enforced bed rest weren’t bad enough, the bed was tilted at a negative six degree angle so that his feet were elevated above his head. He quickly discovered that the body prefers to stand upright — his spine ached from the weight of his abdomen, and the increased blood flow to his skull gave him a pounding headache. Even using the bathroom became a Herculean task when lying flat on his back. Worse yet, he had to adhere to a strict sleeping schedule, with no naps allowed.
Iwanicki fought against gravity to manage basic daily tasks, like showering, brushing his teeth, getting dressed, and even drinking water. Unless he had to bathe or relieve himself, he had no privacy — even during serious phone calls. Mealtimes were grueling because a dietitian had carefully calculated the caloric amounts of every single ingredient so that he would maintain his weight. Without gravity to help push the food into his stomach, Iwanicki became full very quickly and often struggled to finish the last dredges of condiments.
Iwanicki finally returned to a vertical position in December 2014, which his body immediately protested. According to a second piece for Vice, his heart-rate jumped to 150 beats per minute and then plummeted to 70 within eight minutes. Blood vessels in his legs that had remained slack for over two months were suddenly engorged. Finally, as he approached a black out, the staff lowered the bed back to the horizontal position. It turns out that none of the bed-rest subjects had ever lasted a full 15 minutes directly after the study.
After a gradual acclimation period, Iwanicki repeated the tests he had done before the study. 70 days of bed rest had completely shot his balance, coordination, and endurance, but just a few days of walking and reconditioning nearly restored his body to pre-study status. He walked out of the testing facility with a smile, dreaming of food that hadn’t been prepared in a laboratory setting.
A year after the study began, Iwanicki reflected on his experience in an interview with Nextshark: “I find myself attracted to these environments of deprivation, in part because it helps me appreciate what I have. [...] In this case I knew it wasn’t going to be a pleasant experience, but I also had a tangible understanding that I was going to come out with a new appreciation for my normal life.” He relished the sensation of sunlight on his face for the first time in two in a half months. “The first beer I had, the first nachos I had, the first burrito I had, it was all so good. Everything had a new shine to it.”
Despite the difficulty of the experience, Iwanicki doesn’t regret his decision — in fact, he continues to participate in paid research experiments. But he definitely doesn’t want another taste of space life. You can follow him on Twitter.