Vacuum pumps help prepare astronauts for return to Earth

With construction of the International Space Station moving on apace, and with the discovery of much larger quantities of water on the moon than were previously thought to exist opening up the possibilities of a permanently manned moon base, the question of the effects of zero gravity conditions on the human body are being re-evaluated. Perceived as being a particular area of uncertainty is how the human body will stand up to a return to terrestrial gravity after long duration space missions.

To answer these questions, scientists developed an experiment to be carried into space. Launched into space in April on the Space Shuttle Columbia, the Lower Body Negative Pressure (LBNP) experiment will provide scientists with the key data they need to evaluate the zero gravity effects.

In space, under zero-gravity conditions, blood is distributed equally through the body, but this is in sharp contrast to conditions on Earth where, due to the influence of gravity, the blood tends to be more in the lower extremities of the body, and this difference could cause adaptation problems for astronauts returning to Earth after long missions. In the experiment, an astronaut is put into a cylindrical box which encloses hermetically the lower extremities of the astronaut from hips to toes. The box is connected by tube to an air pump which sucks air out to build up a vacuum, simulating terrestrial gravity conditions by causing the astronaut’s blood circulation to shift the distribution balance into the lower extremities of the body.

With reliability being of paramount importance for a space bound mission, and with the need for tightly controlled vacuum essential to obtaining useful data, the developers of the experiment turned to ASF Thomas for a suitable pump. ASF Thomas was able to supply an appropriate design, capable of building up a controlled vacuum in the box to a minimum of -80mmHg.

As with any experimental equipment carried into space on the Shuttle, weight of the payload was a key consideration. To help address this, the ASF pump was constructed largely in aluminium, with several drill holes further decreasing weight. As a result, the weight of the pump was reduced to just 5.4kg.

The experiment forms part of the Neurolab, mounted in the Spacelab module on the shuttle. Data gathered will be crucial to the research into zero gravity effects. If the experiment is a success, some of the equipment could form the basis of systems that will train astronauts for their return to Earth after long space missions.

ASF Thomas is the world’s leading manufacturer of OEM compressors and pumps, with product design, manufacture, installation and service all approved to ISO 9001. All standard products are available with fast deliveries, and non-standard products can be quickly engineered to suit individual applications, and supplied in volume. The UK Service Centre offers a rapid turnaround on spares and repairs, and in addition ASF Thomas offers users ultimate peace of mind through its compressor and vacuum pump Refurbishment Programme.