Menu

Professor’s microgravity research heading for International Space Station

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off fro NASA's Kennedy Space Center.
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, with the Dragon spacecraft onboard, launches at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in June 2017. (Courtesy NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Henry Donahue, Ph.D., chair of the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Biomedical Engineering, will further his research into space travel health impacts this week when SpaceX launches its Dragon spacecraft bound for the International Space Station.

The SpaceX flight to resupply crews on the orbiting laboratory will carry many scientific experiments, including Donahue’s, seeking to benefit future space explorers and improve life on Earth.

The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, which manages the ISS U.S. National Laboratory, has accepted Donahue’s proposal to analyze age-related changes in muscle and bone function as part of one of the research projects. 

“It’s a unique opportunity to look at microgravity in space,” said Donahue, the VCU College of Engineering Foundation Professor.

Henry Donahue, Ph.D.
Henry Donahue, Ph.D., will be able to further his research into space travel health impacts this week when SpaceX launches its Dragon spacecraft bound for the International Space Station. (Courtesy VCU College of Engineering)

In the reduced gravity of space, astronauts lose bone and muscle from their legs, hips and lower backs because fewer demands are placed on those parts of the body. Donahue has been investigating the combined impact of space radiation and microgravity on bone and muscle. His team found that while microgravity alone led to both bone and muscle loss, radiation alone did not.

Understanding what happens to the body in microgravity is important for astronauts — but also for people who may never venture into outer space, Donahue said.

“We know that bone loss that results from microgravity is very similar to bone loss experienced by people over age 35 or 40,” he said. 

Learning what kinds of preventive measures could help space travelers maintain bone and muscle health during spaceflight might benefit people with age-related bone loss, Donahue said.

In collaboration with Charles R. Farber, Ph.D., an associate professor of public health sciences at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, Donahue also will analyze the impacts of microgravity on various genes within bone and muscle.