NASA Podcasts

NASA 360 Season 2, Show 11
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in this episode (in order of appearance):


[upbeat electronic music]

Jennifer: In our sports-crazed world, finding better ways to compete has become an obsession for a lot of us. Whether it's at the amateur level or all the way to the top levels of the professional ranks, all of us want to improve our abilities. And today technology is making that easier than ever. Welcome to NASA 360. I'm Jennifer Pulley, and today we're going to see how technology that was originally devised to help pilots and astronauts can now be found in sporting equipment that can be used by all of us.

Jennifer: Okay, so here in the states, one of the most popular sports is football. And for those of us in the stands, how fun is it to watch the game wrapped in a blanket on a brisk fall day? But of course, months before the chill is in the air, the players begin preparing for the season by practicing in the boiling heat of the summer. Unfortunately, the heat, exercise, and all those pads can lead to heatstroke. Luckily, a NASA-developed technology is now helping protect players from being overcome by heatstroke. Johnny Alonso traveled to Philly to see how this technology works.

Johnny: Hey, how's it going? Okay, so if you've seen the show before, you know that NASA's done a lot more than just work on space and aeronautic problems. I mean, one of NASA's key objectives is to take what we've learned in space and apply it to everyday applications back here on earth. Well, one technology originally developed for space is now being used to help keep athletes safe from heatstroke. Now, heatstroke may not sound that serious to some of you, but it's the third leading cause of death among athletes here in the U.S. so it's really a big problem. So how is NASA know-how helping keep athletes safe? Well, with this thing. I mean, it looks like a regular pill, but it's not. It's actually a small, ingestible thermometer that can give you instantaneous core temperature readings from inside an athlete's body.

Johnny: Okay, so why would NASA need an ingestible thermometer? Well, just like football players, our astronauts wear a lot of equipment doing some pretty strenuous tasks, like space walks, for instance. At NASA, a space walk is called an E.V.A., or extra-vehicular activity. Before astronauts prepare for a space walk, they first put on a really bulky suit, and these walks are not joyrides either. They're usually very strenuous repair or installation missions that can take hours to complete. During these missions, astronauts routinely perform lifting, pulling, and tugging to get the job completed. Now, current space suits are basically a self-contained spaceship. I mean, they have miles of heating and cooling elements inside them to help the astronauts stay nice and comfy even when the outside temperatures can fluctuate by 500 degrees in a matter of seconds. But even with heating and cooling units, astronauts still release body heat and humidity inside the suit, which could lead to heat exhaustion and eventually heatstroke.

Johnny: This is where the thermometer comes in. Ground controllers back at NASA can monitor the core temperature of astronauts on the ground while astronauts are working up in space. This monitoring is just another way that NASA helps to keep its crews safe. And back here on earth, technology is helping athletes perform at high levels by providing instantaneous data about their core temp. It was originally used by astronauts for the space shuttle, but now it's being used by amateur and professional athletes alike to keep them safe. So dig it. I traveled here to West Chester university, right near Philadelphia, to speak with a friend of mine who's leading the effort in preventing heatstroke in athletes.

Johnny: Hey, sandy, how you doing?

Sandy: Doing good.

Johnny: Good to see you.

Sandy: Good to see you.

Johnny: Can you just tell me a little bit about this-- about your core temperature device? How does it work?

Sandy: They've got little sensors in them like this. And they swallow those, and then I'm able to walk up behind and punch their jersey number, and I get their body temperature.

Johnny: Is that what you were just doing right now?

Sandy: That's what I just did to that player. Yep, he's at a little bit over 100.

Johnny: A little bit over 100.

Sandy: And they just started practice.

Johnny: I know, can you imagine what it's gonna be like an hour from now?

Sandy: I know. I know. [laughs] We're using it, actually, in two ways. We're using it to just track the players' core temperatures to see how hot they get. From a clinical standpoint, we can use it to take the players out if they get too hot. And then I've been using it for several years to do research which has really been a kind of cutting--edge research in this population. It's different from, like, the elderly who die in a heat wave. These players, actually, when they succumb to heatstroke, it's called exertional heatstroke. And it comes from being very active in this population. They're doing physical contact drills, it's warm and humid out here, they're in full equipment, so it's a situation where they're producing more heat than they're able to get rid of, so their body temperature rises very high.

Johnny: Heat exhaustion occurs when the body can no longer dissipate heat adequately because of the amount of heat being produced within the body. When this happens, in severe cases, the body becomes overwhelmed and begins to fail, leading to brain and organ damage or even death. Unfortunately, in 2001, Minnesota Vikings football player Korey Stringer died when his core body temperature shot up over 108 degrees. His untimely death led the NFL to start studies to figure out how they could prevent this from ever happening again. One of the NFL's test teams is the Philadelphia Eagles. So Dr. Fowkes Godek has been working with the Eagles for several seasons and has already helped save lives.

Johnny: All right, so I know we're here at West Chester university and you're working with a lot of college dudes and everything. I have heard you work with professionals as well, correct?

Sandy: Yep, I've been working for the past six seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles. You know, I started out thinking that rehydration, using normal, you know, rehydration drinks was the best way to go. I thought that it was dehydration that was the primary cause of athletes getting hot. And through my research with these guys, I found that that's not the case. So then we started looking at fluid balance and realized that these players can't stay in fluid balance, particularly the first three days of preseason, because they're not in electrolyte balance. And then that leads you to, "Okay, how are we gonna put those electrolytes back?" These offensive and defensive linemen sweat at an average rate of 2-1/2 liters an hour. So some of these players are losing upwards of 3 liters an hour, which might be 12 liters in a day of two-a-day practices. And the other thing that we found is that you can't just put the water back. You've got to put significant amounts of sodium chloride, or salt, back as well. And we're now to the point where we can actually tailor-make a rehydration electrolyte program for each individual athlete. So we've really decreased the incidents of muscle cramps. We have made these players feel better. Therefore that should translate into a better performance, 'cause they really see it as, you're watching out for them. So in preseason, when you've got 90 players on a field, you know, you want to make sure that, you know, you're not putting them in jeopardy. So that's why the core temperature monitor is really important.

Johnny: All right, sandy, so this is 91, right? This is the guy right here? Yep. All right, you want to show me what you're doing?

Sandy: We're gonna put it in sports mode.

Johnny: Okay.

Sandy: Like that. That's sports mode. Players

Johnny: Okay.

Sandy: I'm gonna push in 91.

Johnny: So what did you just do? Oh, 102? Check that out. Really.

Sandy: 102.3.

Johnny: 102.3. What if you do a reading and the player's temperature is actually too high?

Sandy: We actually go more, still, on symptoms. So if they. . . if the player, if their temperature's high and they don't feel good, they've got the symptoms that suggest exertional heatstroke, then yeah, not just the reading. That's. . . The first year I was up at Eagles' camp, we actually were taking players out because we felt they were too high, and they were actually fine. So now it's a combination of, how do they feel and then what is the temperature when, you know, when they're feeling bad.

Johnny: I see.

Sandy: And then we take them out, and the protocol is to, obviously, rapidly cool them down. Ice water immersion is the best way to do it. You can also do it pretty effectively with ice towels and those types of things. So it's a matter of getting their core temperature down as fast as possible. One of the myths people don't understand is that it's not necessarily how high an athlete's core temperature is, it's how long they stay high. So even if they're at 106, 107, if they start to become symptomatic, it's a matter of rapidly cooling them. So you don't want them. . . You don't want to transport them from the field to the hospital. You want to initiate cooling right away. It's amazing, the technology that was originally developed for NASA some, you know, 25 years ago has such broad implications in, you know, not just athletes, but, you know, huge implications in professions like firefighters and keeping our military safe and those types of things as well. So it's because of this technology that we've really gone way beyond what we were ever able to do in a laboratory study.

Jennifer: All right, who can forget the stunning success that the swimmers had in the 2008 Beijing Olympics? Now, one of the big reasons for their success was the development of a specialized Speedo swimsuit called the LZR racer. Now, this suit was proven to reduce a swimmer's time by about 2 percent. While that doesn't sound like much, over 60 world records were broken by swimmers wearing this suit. Johnny Alonso caught up with Olympic swimmer Katie Hoff in Baltimore to see how NASA wind tunnel technology helped in the suit's design.

Johnny: Hey, how's it going? Okay, so as Jen just mentioned, NASA researchers are using their knowledge about fluid dynamics and wind tunnels to improve Speedo's LZR racer swimsuit. All right, so you're probably thinking to yourself, "Come on, how hard can it be to design a swimsuit?" Well, let me tell you, it's hard. You have to test tons of different materials and designs, develop unique welding techniques, make sure that it conforms to international swimming standards and much, much more. So after years of work with NASA, you think Speedo's LZR racer swimsuit was a success? Well, if you dialed in to the 2008 summer Olympics, then you probably know it was a huge success. Participants wearing the LZR racer suits won 94 percent of the races that year. And check out the stats for world records broken. Over 60 of them were smashed by swimmers wearing the LZR racer suit in 2008 alone, so this suit really made a huge difference. In a few, I'll tell you a little more about how the suit was designed, but first, let's talk to one of those athletes who broke some of those world records. I met up with three-time Olympic medalist Katie Hoff at the north Baltimore aquatic club in our mutual hometown of Baltimore, Maryland.

Johnny: So you've been swimming for a long time. So when you put on the new suit, did it feel like it was gonna make you any faster?

Katie: Definitely. I remember the first time I got to test out the suit before I competed, and it was actually right over there, and I dove in the water and just popped up right away. . . Just stopped, and I was like, you know, "Oh, my god! This suit is amazing."

Johnny: So are there any obvious differences between the old suits that you used to wear compared to the new suit that you're wearing now?

Katie: Definitely. There are a lot of differences. I remember the. . . probably two suits ago, it was called the FS2, and I was only able to wear just a regular cut. I didn't cover my legs or anything else. And so that suit, you know, it didn't have a compression that the LZR has. And even the next suit, the FS Pro, had some compression, but it wasn't the same in the core and, you know, I didn't feel like I was able to kind of ride on the surface the way that I do with this suit.

Johnny: All right, let's take a few minutes to talk about why the suit is so successful. But first, we need to talk a little bit about something called drag. Whether you're an Olympic swimmer, an astronaut blasting into space, or even a passenger on a commercial airplane, everyone and everything has to deal with drag. Basically, viscous drag is the force of friction that slows down a moving object when it's traveling through air or water. So as you're moving forward, there's always the force that's slowing you down. The trick is to find ways to make an object move more efficiently. If you can do that, you can almost guarantee that object will use less energy.

Johnny: So, Katie, can you walk us through the suit?

Katie: Yes, well, this is actually only a Olympic-issue one, 'cause the other ones are usually just black. But so this is pretty cool. The sides, when you did dolphin kick off the wall, was really cool-looking. So this is the main part, when I was talking about the core. Right through here really stabilizes your core so that, you know, it's very tight and, you know, it's almost like a corset. And so this part you want over your hips. And then these are, you know, this really gets your legs tight and streamlined. As well as the back of the suit. You know, basically, girls don't look like girls anymore. You know, it compresses everything. So that's kind of nice.

Johnny: Gets all your curves.

Katie: Yeah. But it's definitely worth it, and, you know, it helps you feel streamlined and. . . is it constricting anywhere? I mean. . . it's, you know, it's really tight. It's just something that, you know, your race isn't that long. You can handle it. So you just don't, like, wear. . . you don't want to wear it for a couple hours. Probably not the best idea.

Johnny: So what did you think when you heard that NASA was involved in the testing?

Katie: I thought that, you know, I thought it was great that NASA was, you know, willing to help us for swimsuits. You know, you think NASA, you think space and all that, so it kind of gave me a lot of confidence, you know, in the suit. The fact that, you know, we were gonna be backed with such a great technology.

Johnny: Starting back in the early 1900s through today, NASA's been using its wind tunnels to test everything from rockets to aircraft to make them more efficient. With this base of knowledge, researchers at NASA, working in collaboration with Speedo, tested over 100 different swimsuit materials in wind tunnels to see how they would fare. After years of exhaustive study, one material stuck out. It was called LZR Pulse. This material was superior because it was not only efficient at reducing drag, but it also repelled water and was extremely lightweight, meaning, it's the perfect material for a top-tier swimsuit. And check this out.

Johnny: Even the seams on the suit were studied. Why? Well, believe it or not, seams produce drag as well. Even if a seam only slows you down a little, in the high-stakes world of competitive swimming, that could be too much. Even a hundredth of a second can determine whether you finish first or last. So tests were performed on traditionally sewn seams and on ultrasonically welded seams to help them identify problem areas. NASA's wind tunnel results helped Speedo create a bonding system that eliminates seams and reduces drag, allowing the LZR racer to become the first fully bonded full-body swimsuit with ultrasonically welded seams. This process alone reduces drag by 6 percent. Another benefit to the swimmer is how the suit is constructed. The suit provides extra compression in key areas to help a swimmer use less energy, allowing them to swim more quickly.

Johnny: Translation: More medals and more records broken with the suit. Now, all this efficiency really paid off because researchers were able to reduce the skin friction drag on the previous Speedo FS pro suit by about 24 percent. This reduction meant that swimmers using the new suit reduced their racing times by about 2 percent. With that kind of jump, man, world records began falling almost immediately and are still falling. Oh, and one more thing. Let's not forget that NASA's using its wind tunnels to make the aircraft we fly more efficient too. So the next time you board an airplane, just know that NASA technology has helped make that plane safer and more efficient. Hang tight. You're watching NASA 360.

Jennifer: Almost all of us at one time or another have taken part in a competitive sport. I'm talking from little league all the way up to the pros. There are a lot of current and former athletes out there. But even if you've never played a sport, you might have heard the term "in the zone." what exactly does that mean? Basically, it's when your mind and your body are working together in perfect sync and you feel almost unstoppable while playing sports. For example, if you play basketball, every time you shoot, you just know that you're going to sink the shot, or with golf, every time you putt, you know the ball is going in the hole. Of course, getting into the zone is not very easy. Sure, in practice, you could sink that foul shot every single time. But how would you do with that foul shot if you were trying to win the big game? You have 30,000 fans screaming at you and one second left on the clock. Not so easy, huh? That's why top pros and Olympic athletes spend countless hours training their bodies and minds to perform perfectly at crunch time. They try to build a bridge between the mind and the muscles to perform in sync together. So what can you do to help your chances of performing at crunch time?

Jennifer: Practice, of course. But how do you replicate the feeling and stress that comes along with performing at crunch time? Well, would you believe NASA can help with that? My friends Dr. Pope and Dr. Prinzel have developed a cutting-edge technology called the Z.O.N.E. that uses biofeedback to help athletes train their mind and muscles for athletics. To show you how this works, we came to the Kingsmill golf course here in Williamsburg, Virginia, where we will be testing this device with LPGA golfer Katherine Hull.

Jennifer: While Dr. Pope is hooking Katherine up to the machine, let me tell you a little bit about the device. It's called the Z.O.N.E., which stands for Zeroing Out Negative Effects. Basically, it uses biofeedback to help train a person to put their mind and muscles in sync while performing a specific task, like putting, for instance. Now, originally, NASA used this type of biofeedback training to help pilots stay alert throughout long trips. But it was found to work in many other ways, including sports.

Jennifer: The device works like this. An off-the-shelf golf putting practice system was modified to monitor either physiological conditions or brainwave functions within the subject. If the subject is too tense or has the wrong brainwave activity, several visual and auditory cues will give them feedback, which forces them to alter their present state. For example, if the subject is not at optimal levels, the putting surface will undulate, the hole size will decrease, and the mounting laser will swing wildly. But once the subject's muscles or brainwaves are at optimal levels, the trainer will relax, allowing the subject to putt. The objective for trainees is a perfect putt every time, even under the most stressful conditions.

Katherine: It's awesome. It makes you think about relaxing your body and not just in your face but, like, the rest of you.

Lance: Professionals, just like everyone else, get nervous and excited, especially, you know, in a stressful moment such as, you know, making a putt to win the tournament, the ability to be able to relax and focus and concentrate, but mostly clear your mind, not have all those swing thoughts, not overthink the putt, is very important.

Jennifer: Tell us why NASA or how NASA got involved with golf and biofeedback.

Lance: This research started out, we were looking at trying to improve the attention and cognitive state just for pilots and air traffic controllers, trying to help them do their job better. And what we discovered is, some of the same responses we were getting with pilots while they were on the flight deck or controllers while they were managing air traffic was some of the same things that we saw from other research that was for golfers, for example. So we thought, well, we could apply some of this technology to helping pilots because pilots and air traffic controllers really like golf. They like to do it in their recreation time. And this was a way that we can employ these techniques in a fun way, one that would make it very rewarding and keep them motivated, keep them wanting to keep doing this. And we've been highly successful with that, so we thought, well, let's just extend this, and let's see if regular golfers would be interested in this technology as well.

Jennifer: Katherine, how has the Z.O.N.E. helped you, just in this time that you've been here?

Katherine: Well, it's instant feedback on how relaxed your body is and basically from head to toe. And when I'm over here and the laser's moving, as soon as I can calm everything down internally, then the laser stops, and I'm able to putt at my best.

Jennifer: Now, do you get that feeling of stress inside at. . . maybe not here, but during a tournament? What do you do?

Katherine: Well, when you're under pressure out on the golf course, everything gets hot, and your heart beats faster, and you get more adrenaline. And I think the key for us out there is to control everything using our breathing, but this gives me another kind of physiological response and something else to think about that I can kind of tone down if I do get in a pressure situation.

Jennifer: Yeah, well, and you've really kind of controlled this machine. It's amazing to watch you.

Katherine: Yeah, it only took a few, but I mean, it's great feedback, and I think, yeah, I'll probably be thinking about it now from more on.

Jennifer: Right, right, right. Can you do another one for us?

Katherine: I'll try, yeah.

Jennifer: There you go. So you. . . I heard you talk before about. . . When you're getting ready to putt, you've kind of relaxed, but then you continue to stay relaxed based on this. . . this feedback.

Katherine: Yeah, it's what it's telling me right now. And it's just. . . I think it's a calmness that you've got to learn to control, and you can control, as evidenced by this. So the faster that you can do it and the longer that you can maintain it, the better.

Jennifer: So is putting the only application for this type of biofeedback?

Lance: Putting was just the first application that we chose because a lot of the pilots and controllers reported that they enjoyed playing golf, and so this was one way we thought we could embed, you know, in a fun way that we know that they would keep at it and keep practicing the skills that we had taught them while they were at our center. What we have found, though, is that since, you know, NASA's involved with quality of life, and what we've learned is that we can employ this type of technology in essentially any type of activity that people find enjoyable.

Jennifer: There you have it. As you can see, NASA technology isn't just being used in space. All of us can benefit from it in one way or another. That's it for now. For Johnny Alonso, I'm Jennifer Pulley. Catch you next time on NASA 360.


Jennifer: Welcome to NASA 360. I'm Jennifer Pulley, and today we're going to see how technology that was originally desi--devised. . .

Johnny: Now, with that kind of j. . . Man. World records began dropping and continue to fall. That's not the line. So the next time you board an airplane, just know that NASA technology has, ugh, has helped to make it safer and more efficient.

Jennifer: You had 30,000 screaming fans screaming at you-- that's twice.

Johnny: In a few, I'll tell you how. . . In a few, I'll tell you a little bit more. . . I'll tell you a little about. . . I'll tell you a little about how the suit. In a few, I'll tell you a little about how the suit. . . [laughter]

Johnny: Whoa. Reduction meant that swimmers using the new suit. . . Two. [both speaking indistinctly]

Johnny: But some of the athletes that take this in the studies-- I mean, do they have to give this back to you? You know the one you took earlier? Okay. You need to give back to me. Well, you're holding it right now. I know. After you take it, you need to give it back to me.

Jennifer: To watch the game wrapped in a blanket on a cool, crisp, brisk, brisk day.

Johnny: In a few, I'll tell you a little bit more how the suit was designed. But first, let's talk to one of those athletes who broke some of those world records. Good?

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