MISSOULA, Mont. – Chuck Leonard gets motion sickness just by sitting in the back seat of a moving car. So the University of Montana researcher is already resigned to the fact that his project with NASA next week is going to end with him being sick.
Leonard and two graduate students, Jim Sykes and Eric Kruger, are to take to the skies above Houston on April 12 aboard a C-9 jet that flies a series of roller-coaster arcs to create weightlessness to test a device that Leonard and a Russian scientist developed and patented.
Despite the knowledge that it will likely end up with him vomiting, "I'm stoked to the max," Leonard said. "I love new experiences, and how can you beat experiencing weightlessness?"
The researchers will be testing whether a device called the Myotonometer, a compact device that measures muscle tone, works in weightlessness.
NASA is interested because space travel, and prolonged stays in space stations, affect the human body, and officials want a small device that could be used in space to monitor the human body.
"We shot John Glenn up there without knowing what would happen to him," Leonard said, "but what we've found is there is a breakdown of tissue, the mind slows, you lose bone mass. ... We started to screw up the human machine."
The Myotonometer, which is used on Earth by doctors, physical therapists and sports teams, can measure the progress or damage done to muscle tone.
"If you want to measure muscle health, we're the best mousetrap out there," said Leonard, who designed and patented the machine along with Russian scientist Eugene Mikhailenok.
For seven years, Leonard and Mikhailenok collaborated to come up with a portable device, which they patented in 2000. The next year they formed Neurogenic Technologies, a UM spinoff company, to market the device.
It retails for $4,950.
NASA was in the market for just such a device, one that's portable, easy to use, doesn't use much energy, doesn't involve disposables, isn't invasive and whose readings aren't influenced by atmospheric pressure.
The roller-coaster ride on the C-9 will be used to test the Myotonometer in a weightless environment.
Leonard, Sykes and Kruger will test the Myotonometer, both on the way up and as they float in the jet on the way down.
Sykes is a third-year graduate student, while Kruger is in his second year in UM's doctorate of physical therapy program. Sykes is from Bozeman, Kruger from Portland, Ore.
"One of the best things is being able to share this with them," Leonard says. "Space travel could offer a new niche for students in physical therapy and rehab work. It's a huge need for NASA, and it will be great to expose them to that."