Astronaut Chris Hadfield undergoing tests before the BP Reg experimentAstronaut Chris Hadfield undergoes a blood pressure test prior to the BP Reg experiment. Photo credit: Derrick Piontek, CSA

Two experiments based at the University of Waterloo soar into space with astronaut Chris Hadfield, who will become the first Canadian commander of the International Space Station during his five-month mission.

Hadfield is working with Waterloo’s Richard Hughson, as Hughson continues his examination of how extended time in zero-gravity affects the circulatory system. Weightlessness speeds up changes that people normally experience as they age.

So far, the research underscores the importance of exercise.

“The biggest thing we’ve learned is you can’t maintain a sedentary lifestyle,’’ says Hughson, the Schlegel Research Chair in Vascular Aging and Brain Health. “You have to introduce physical activity.’’

Orbiting Earth for six months aboard the International Space Station (ISS), Hadfield, 53, plays a role in two experiments led by Hughson: VASCULAR and BP-Reg.

VASCULAR focuses on the carotid artery. As it loses elasticity with age, the vessel loses its ability to dissipate pressure from blood surging out of the heart. This strains delicate blood vessels in the brain.

The experiment studies the function of Hadfield’s carotid and other arteries before, during and after the mission, and relates this to blood samples collected in space.

Dizzying problem

BP-Reg seeks to discover more about why some astronauts are prone to fainting when they return. Hadfield will inflate cuffs on his legs then rapidly deflate them during his ISS stay.

“What we’re doing is essentially coming up with a way to cause the same changes in blood pressure in space as you get when you stand up on Earth,’’ says Hughson, a professor in the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences.

He has worked with about 20 astronauts over six years to see what their experiences with blood circulation reveal about aging. A treadmill and machine for leg raises and bicep curls offset some of the effects of weightless living on the ISS.

Hughson is happy to stay grounded with his students on research involving the space station — “the biggest laboratory circling the world.’’

“It takes an awful lot of work to be an astronaut, but there’s also a lot of waiting and not flying,’’ he says. “I’d much rather be on this side of the fence.”

In addition to the ongoing experiments, Hadfield’s mission to space is expected include a live downlink event sometime in February, when he will take questions from a University of Waterloo audience. Watch the University of Waterloo homepage for details.