European Space Agency

Collaborating on a mission that takes ‘one small step’ on humanities continued journey in space, by supporting astronaut’s spines.

Is space travel a pain in the butt?

We can all remember the TV footage of NASA astronauts “strolling in the park”; (in other words skipping effortlessly across the moonscape) thanks to the reduced gravity on our smaller celestial neighbour.  For astronauts on the International Space Station, there is no gravity, as they are in a constant state of “freefall”. 

Either way, the problem with reduced gravity is that it can lead to back problems for astronauts when they return to ‘Earthside’.  This is thought to be due to the swelling in the discs in their spines, which when subjected to loading on return to the earth’s gravitational field, may painfully stretch, or even herniate.

To study this phenomenon and look for possible solutions, both NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have reached for a unique imaging device that was developed over the years by Professor Alan Breen and his team in the Centre for Biomechanics Research at the AECC University College.  The device, known as “quantitative fluoroscopy” (QF) takes motion X-rays of the vertebrae of the lower back and measures their movement to find out, for example, if they are slack, tight or un-coordinated when a person bends.

So far, NASA studies have tended to suggest that swollen discs are ‘stiffer’ or tighter as they move (Sayson et al. 2015). ESA, working with Dr David A Green at the Centre of Human and Aerospace Physiological Sciences - King's College London, have engaged Professor Breen’s team to support Phil Carvil, a PhD student, to test a possible solution, or “countermeasure” to disc swelling using their unique imaging facilities.

The countermeasure is called the ‘SkinSuit’, which is similar in appearance to a wetsuit used in water sports, but rather than neoprene uses a bi-direction elastic weave material, combined with distributive padding and stirrups. This allows compression to be applied through the spine, with the intention of “reloading” just long enough to reduce the swelling and presumed ‘tightness’ of the discs.  However, instead of sending test subjects into space to swell their discs, they simply sleep on a special bed devised by Dr Green that enhances the normal overnight swelling that happens every night on Earth.

These studies at the AECC University College, that also include the use of the unique Open Upright MRI scanner, are designed to test a solution to the problem of microgravity’s effects on the back and give indications of how it might be made better.  Then perhaps mankind will be able go to Mars without fear of needing back surgery when we get there!



  • Mr Philip Carvil, BSc(Hons), MSc (University of Chichester) MSc, (University of London)  PhD Candidate. Kings College London.

  • Professor Alan Breen DC, PhD, M Director

  • Dr Alexander Breen BSc(Hons), MSc, PhD, M Technology Lead and Post-Doctoral Research Fellow