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In what might be the first human experiments in partial gravity, Germany has hired the Zero-G airplane for a series of flights testing how humans react in such conditions.
In the Partial G Campaign, the pilots fly three special parabolic shapes. So instead of zero-g or microgravity, one quarter, half and three quarters of Earth’s gravity will still be present. Passengers on board will therefore experience one quarter, half or three quarters of their own body weight – depending on the trajectory,” explains Stang.
The goal of these flights is to see what effect partial gravity has on human muscle control.
For humans to be able to move around and interact with their environment, they require finely tuned muscle movements, to walk around or ensure a secure footing, for instance. Under partial gravity, in particular, they must be able to effectively control their muscles via their neural pathways. If we are unable to do so, the risk of stumbling is dramatically increased. This applies to both humans on Earth and astronauts in space. However, partial gravity conditions appear to influence this neuromuscular control in challenging situations, increasing the astronaut’s risk of stumbling. Researchers at the University of Freiburg are investigating why this is so. The results are intended to reduce the risk to astronaut safety during missions to other planets, thereby resolving a fundamental safety issue in human physiological space exploration.
This is better than nothing, but it seems to me to be the least important thing to study in partial gravity. The Apollo astronauts clearly demonstrated that humans can adapt their muscle movements to partial gravity. What we must instead learn is whether partial gravity will eliminate bone loss, loss of cardio-vascular conditioning, spinal changes, balance problems, and the vision damage, all of which have been found to occur in weighlessness.
At the same time, it is probably impossible to study any of these latter issues during a short parabolic vomit comet flight. The Germans are doing what they can. Unfortunately, they might be the only ones doing anything in this area.