They all speak of having had a wonderfully enriching experience both in scientific and human terms. A press conference attended by those in charge of the study and volunteers is to be held on 2 June. The volunteers in question are twelve women, drawn from seven European countries. Since March they have been confined to bed at the MEDES (French Institute of Space Medicine and Physiology) space clinic in Toulouse, in what is the longest female bedrest experiment ever conducted within the European Community.
For these two months, they have been confined to bed, lying at a 6° angle, their feet raised slightly above their heads. In such a position it is possible to induce in the body phenomena similar to those encountered by astronauts when subjected to weightlessness for long periods, such as a loss of muscle mass and capacity for effort followed by a reduction in bone mass. A better understanding of the mechanisms governing this adaptation of the body to weightless conditions will be invaluable when it comes to developing counter measures for astronauts. It will also have applications on Earth, for example in the treatment of those in need of long-term hospitalisation, and more generally, of the effects of physical inactivity on health.
Experiments of this type have already been carried out, notably in two three-month sessions involving male volunteers in 2001 and 2002. However, the WISE study is the first long-duration bedrest programme to be conducted in Europe using female subjects.
Some wanted a challenge, others to do their bit
From the time preparations get under way for the bedrest phase to the rehabilitation phase once they are back on their feet, the twelve volunteers will have spent three months at the MEDES clinic, in what they all agreed was an extraordinary experience.
Some, out of a spirit of adventure, signed up as a way of taking on yet another challenge; this was the case with Marjo from Finland, who had already toured the world, or the sport-loving Dorotha from Poland, who lives in Sweden, works in Ireland and previously studied in Italy! "It's a way of testing your limits", explained Elisabeth from Germany, who, like Polish Beata, had tried her hand at parachuting prior to joining the experiment.
Others, such as Monica from the Czech Republic, saw the three-month period as a way of taking some time out from their daily lives, while at the same time being of service to the community. This was also a factor for one of the five French women taking part, Laurence, who had already been involved in drug trials and did not really consider it to be a challenge: "I needed to take some time out from my normal life, to have a change of scene. In the event, I learned a lot. It is also a way of exploring your inner self and forming a clearer understanding of what you are capable of".
Similarly, Delphine, a piano teacher from France, described the study as "a personal challenge, and a way of discovering my physical capabilities, but also a new experience, a way of becoming involved in space activities and making a worthwhile contribution".
The twelve women were involved in scientific tests from a very early stage. From the moment they volunteered, they were kept fully informed about the tests they would have to undergo and also of all the expected scientific benefits.
"We were kept very well informed", adds Marjo. "We were even given presentations on bedrest. Here they really make you feel involved". Elisabeth continues, "to begin with I felt just like a little child, wanting to know everything and people were really very nice, answering all our questions".
According to Nadine, another French volunteer, who normally works for temping agencies, the effect of this very open approach was to make her all the more inquisitive and motivated: "I'm taking part in something that's really important to science and medicine but also to international cooperation. It's a unique experiment to which I've made my own small contribution".
Lying with your head in the stars
Half way through, the twelve volunteers had a visit from an important guest, Claudie Haigneré, the French minister for European Affairs, who had previously been an ESA astronaut, taking part in two missions and spending a total of 25 days in space. This also brought home the extent to which knowledge of how the female body reacts to weightless conditions is limited due to the small number of space flights involving women. Only three women have spent six months or more in space, compared with 48 men (including 20 who have spent more than a year and one more than two years).
Isabelle from France, who works in the food industry, is very conscious of the importance of the experiment: "It's quite amazing when you stop to think about it: what we have achieved has never been done before".
"We really feel like we have taken part in a space programme", says Dorotha. "There's been talk about it everywhere and that's something we are aware of at all times. The scientists explain their experiments to us and we are always learning a lot. In fact, it's very much a two-way process since we are participants in their work".
"We feel very involved in the experiments and tests; in fact we're members of the team", adds Monica. "One could even say that we are the most important members of the team and that's a huge responsibility".
Beata, a young mother, takes a broader view, saying, "Space research, expeditions to Mars: these are really fascinating and important things. I know I'll never go into space but at least I'll know I've done all I could for research, for astronauts and for the future and I'm happy when I think that in my own little way I've made a useful contribution".
"One day women will go to Mars", explain Monica and Laurence, "and knowing we will to some extent have made that possible makes us feel as if we have somehow been part of that mission".
Two months in the twinkling of an eye
All the volunteers said that they were surprised at how the 60 days have flown by.
"We were far to busy to ever get bored", jokes Marjo.
In reality, between examinations, physical exercise and psychological monitoring sessions, the days go by very quickly. As Laurence and Nadine point out, "that is also because we are not able to move from our beds and even taking a shower (while lying down) is a time-consuming business".
For those with time on their hands, there is no shortage of things to do: reading, watching TV, using the Internet, but also lessons in Spanish, Portuguese or computing. And especially something which is particularly popular with all the volunteers: a visit from the physiotherapists for their daily massage.
The volunteers say they don't suffer too much from the lack of visits because they are in contact with close friends and family every day by phone. "My partner is doing his best to get by without me", says one, with a big beaming smile. Another says, "I speak to my 4-year old son every day on the phone. Of course I miss him but I suppose it is only for three months".
They have all been surprised not to suffer more from sore backs and headaches, or even mental fatigue, something which is confirmed by the medical team: there has not been a higher incidence of headaches than in a group of women not undergoing bedrest.
That is not to say, however, that there are no effects arising from simulated weightlessness, as Elisabeth points out: "I feel fine, except for the fact that from time to time I forget I've got legs. You are not aware of losing muscle mass but you can see it has occurred".
In the space of two months, friendships have formed between the volunteers and relationships with the scientific and medical teams have also become much stronger.
"They really look after our every little need", says Isabelle. Nadine goes on to say, "It's really terrific the amount of attention we receive. It's so important to us the way the teams are prepared to listen".
"There is a very close relationship with the medical staff and teams. It's nothing like a standard doctor-patient relationship", says Delphine. "Here we all work together, and everything is done to shield us from stress and worry; it is then up to us to do all we can to make their job easier".
A truly enriching experience
When asked what they have got out of the experience, the volunteers claim to be more than satisfied, some even going as far as to say they have changed, and were delighted to find they had learned more about themselves and others.
"You discover all kinds of things about yourself. It's amazing how easily both your body and mind adapt", notes Laurence. According to Dorotha, "It's a truly enriching experience. I've learned so much about myself and have met lots of really interesting people".
Beata summarises her experience as follows: "It has really enabled me to have a much broader worldview, I really have learned so much. I now have a better understanding of why we go into space, what we do there and how there's really nothing routine and straightforward about it."
"I've gained so much more confidence and self-knowledge". says Delphine. "A bedrest study is a really introspective thing. When I first arrived, I began by thinking about the staff at the clinic and the research they were doing, but as time went on I began to think about space activities and then humanity as a whole. Being cut off from the world, while at the same time being there to contribute something to it really is a lesson in tolerance and open-mindedness".
When asked whether they would be willing to continue with the study for another month it is Dorotha who best sums up the general feeling: "I think I could have but now that I know I'll soon be getting up, I want to get walking again, even though I know it won't be easy straight away".
They all had the same message of encouragement for the volunteers for the second session due to take place in the autumn: "If you're in good health, are open-minded and capable of being patient and want to do your bit for the future, for our children and for space exploration, then why not give it a go!"
On 2 June, as this first session of the WISE study draws to a close, a press conference will be organised at the MEDES space clinic, at the Rangueil hospital in Toulouse.
Volunteers will be on hand to talk about their experience. Senior figures from ESA, CNES and MEDES, who have been conducting this study in conjunction with NASA and the Canadian Space Agency, will present the initial results from this WISE study session as well as information on preparations for the second session scheduled for the autumn (see attached programme).