Canadian astronaut readies for liftoff

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Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield likens the weightlessness experienced in outer space to "floating in a tub of Jell-O."

Sounds like fun, but zero-gravity for any prolonged period of time wreaks havoc on muscle mass and bone density.

"It’s sort of like eternal bed rest on Earth," Hadfield says in a phone interview from Houston, Texas.

"We can be so lazy in weightlessness. We don’t even have to hold up our head. So your body will just waste away. It is the biggest opportunity for idleness anybody could imagine."

The 52-year-old product of Sarnia, Ont., is preparing for his third trip to space.

He’s slated to blast off Dec. 5 aboard the Russian Soyuz rocket as part of the three-man crew of Expedition 34/35. The rocket will dock with the International Space Station (ISS), where the crew will carry out a six-month mission.

Hadfield, who’s already in the history books as the first Canadian to walk in space and the only Canadian to ever board the Russian space station Mir, is poised to become the first Canadian to command the ISS.

At six months, this will be his longest mission and more than enough time for his muscles to begin to resemble Jell-O.

Fortunately, Hadfield and his fellow astronauts will have use of a high-tech exercise machine NASA designed for out-of-this-world workouts.

It’s called aRED, short for Advanced Resistive Exercise Device.

Picture a Universal or Bowflex home gym — with two piston-driven vacuum cylinders "the size of a beer keg" instead of weights or resistance bands, Hadfield says.

The adjustable cylinders, along with a flywheel system, "simulate free-weight exercises in normal gravity," according to NASA.

Hadfield adds: "Basically, you can dial up the amount of force so it feels like you’re lifting weights. It really works well."

ARED allows astronauts to perform a variety of traditional weight-training exercises, such as squats, deadlifts, biceps curls, shoulder presses and bench presses.

Before aRED, which was installed in the ISS in early 2009, astronauts could lose up to 15% of their muscle volume and 25% of their strength during a mission despite exercising on a less-advanced device, according to NASA-funded research.

"ARED is as good a piece of equipment as we’ve ever designed and people are pretty excited about the level of fitness that we can maintain even without gravity," says Hadfield, a married father of three and 20-year NASA veteran.

For cardio training, there’s also a cycle ergometer, which is similar to a stationary bike, and a treadmill.

Astronauts secure themselves on the cycle ergometer with clip pedals, waist straps, back supports and handholds.

"For the treadmill, we have bungees over our shoulders to help keep us down," Hadfield says. "It’s not exactly the same, but you can still do the pounding and the running. The impact with the ground helps remind your body that you need dense bones, especially in the big-bone areas of your body."

During their six months in orbit, Hadfield and his crew will be required to exercise two hours a day, seven days a week.

Fuelled by a healthy diet — there are no fast-food joints in space, Hadfield notes — the astronauts should manage to maintain most of their muscle mass and bone density.

"There’s a rehabilitation when we come home that takes on the order of months as well," notes the fit 6-foot, 168-pounder. "But we’ve basically beaten the problem. The people that are flying six months now, the regular crews rotating up and back like we will be, are coming back with essentially the same strength and essentially the same bone density as when they launched.

"It’s nice after six months to be able to emerge from your spaceship with a strong and healthy body."

Spacewalk workout

Walking in a space suit is a workout in itself.

Just ask Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian to exit a spacecraft and "walk."

"You’re in a pressure suit, so it resists every motion that you make," he explains. "There’s nothing to move you around but yourself. Every task is physical and some of them are right at the limit of your muscle strength."

On his last mission to the International Space Station (ISS), Hadfield had the opportunity to take two spacewalks.

The first one lasted eight hours and was like "lifting weights for eight hours," Hadfield says.

While no spacewalks are planned for his next mission, Hadfield must be prepared for one if the ISS requires outside repairs.

"You want to be strong and fit if that comes up," he says, "both for muscle strength and for cardiovascular."