|Updated: 2/07 5:24 pm
||Published: 2/07 1:57 pm
TULSA, Okla. - It's something that has never been done before: sending a human to Mars.
Research going on right here in Tulsa could make it happen.
FOX23 looked into what is happening on the TU campus, that is critical to NASA's mission.
We visited Professor John Caruso's lab in the basement of Chapman Hall and found three unique pieces of equipment, including one nicknamed the "human yo-yo".
Researchers are studying how they could prepare the human body to spend more than a year in space.
"We have spacecraft that we can land on Mars, but perhaps the weakest link is human physiology," said Dr. Caruso.
"I do a type of research that is commonly referred to as exercise countermeasures,"Caruso said.
NASA is trying to determine how to help astronauts stay healthy while spending months in a weightless environment.
Caruso has three pieces of equipment in the lab inside Chapman Hall where he's examining three basic health risks: loss of muscle mass, loss of muscle strength, and loss of bone density.
"There's not too many laboratories in the country that have machines such as these, that each operate independent of gravity and each of them is instrumented," said Caruso.
Muscle mass and muscle strength are things you can rebuild. Bone density is much harder to rebuild.
"Perhaps of all the physiological markers, bone loss is the most insidious," said Caruso.
Once you lose bone density, you are at a greater risk for osteoporosis, which can cause your bones to break more easily.
Lifting weights can improve bone density, but astronauts can't have dumbbells and barbells flying around in space.
Astronauts have limited access to food and water. There's limited space, and the biggest challenge is that there's no gravity.
"In terms of exercise, astronauts gotta find time to do it, and then once they do it, they gotta get the most bang for their buck, so to speak," said Caruso.
For years, astronauts have used treadmills and stationary bikes in space. Both provide a cardiovascular workout but are not weight-bearing, so they do little to help maintain bone density.
Right now there's one of the so-called "human yo-yo" machines, like the one inside the lab at TU, onboard the International Space Station.
"As far as I know, it's a very valuable piece of equipment," said Caruso.
His research shows it works well in maintaining muscle mass.
Caruso is also studying how two other machines, that use fast repetitive motions, could help prevent bone loss.
"This scientific discipline, keeping people healthy in outer space, is likely the weak link, and that's gotta improve the most," said Caruso.
Caruso describes himself as a former "gym rat." He previously competed in body building competitions, and says his path to this type of research is unusual.
He was studying exercise physiology, and prior to pursuing his Ph.D., he wound up doing post-graduate work alongside NASA astronauts.
"I wanted to be a better athlete, and I wound up working at Johnson Space Center. While I was there, I was probably the only one who didn't grow up watching 'Star Wars' or 'Star Trek'," said Caruso.
"It intrigued me, because Star Trek and Star Wars are science fiction. NASA's not science fiction. NASA's the real deal," said Caruso.
"We're in a little room right now, but what we're doing is very, very important in the long run," said Caruso.
"It's very gratifying. As researchers, we do the work and publish our papers, and we hope in some way, shape or form, NASA adopts our findings," Caruso said.
NASA's next big goal is sending a man to Mars, in less than 20 years, by sometime in the 2030 decade.
"NASA is gung ho about it, and they're going to pursue this," said Caruso.
"I'm trying to help do what I can here, with good research, so those federal dollars are best spent," Caruso said.
A mission to Mars means astronauts would spend two and a half years, or about 30 months, in space. That's longer than anyone has ever lived in those conditions, but Caruso is confident it's a mission that will happen in his lifetime.