Space life scientist Charles Layne vividly recalls witnessing an American astronaut take his first steps back on Earth after four months on board the Russian space station Mir. It was nearly two decades ago and one of the longest space missions in American history.

He stepped off the gurney, and his knees immediately buckled,” said Layne, now a University of Houston professor in the Department of Health and Human Performance. “He said he thought he was sinking into the floor up to his knees.”

That bizarre illusion wasn’t just because the astronaut lost muscle strength after floating around in microgravity for several months, but his sensory perception and motor control was altered.

“If you don’t use the sensory receptors in your legs and feet, you will lose them,” said Layne, who’s been researching the development of human coordination from a neuromuscular perspective ever since.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is now charting a historic, pioneering journey to Mars. Crewed exploration missions leading up to a Martian landing could last as long as 1,100 days. But how do you maintain an astronaut’s health and ability to complete mission-essential tasks while confined to a compact space capsule, potentially the size of a small car, for years?

“It’s a huge challenge because you need a small, gravity independent system using motors and flywheels,” said Meghan Downs, senior research scientist for KBRwyle at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

Several small exercise devices, ranging in size from a shoe box to a larger platform capable of doing squats, deadlifts, high pulls, calf raises and more, are currently being designed. The primary focus of these innovations is to maintain muscle strength and aerobic fitness. However it is also critical to develop countermeasures to protect sensorimotor function.

On the International Space Station (ISS), a treadmill provides some protection of sensorimotor function; however, a treadmill is not currently planned for exploration missions.

As an alternative, the Novel Musculoskeletal Loading and Sensorimotor Assessment System is being developed through a grant funded by NASA’s Independent Research and Development Center.

Downs is the project’s principal investigator. She earned her master’s degree and Ph.D. in exercise physiology from the University of Houston. She has collaborated with sensorimotor and neuroscience experts, including Layne; the JSC Neuroscience Lab; and Lars Oddsson, the inventor of the Walkasins, a device worn around the ankles to prevent patients with balance disorders from falling.

Layne likes to call the project “Mars in a box.” “It’s like exercise in a box,” he said with a grin.

Pressure-sensing insoles are placed in the astronauts’ shoes during exercise. As different pressures are sensed, vibrators attached around the ankle joint are turned on. The crewmember then tries to move in such a way that the vibrators turn off.

“This biofeedback process forces the crewmembers to move in ways they might not otherwise, which may contribute to the maintenance of sensory receptors,” said Layne.

The UH connection to deep space travel doesn’t stop there. David Young, a doctoral student who works on Layne’s research team, has been using motion capture technology to help collect and analyze movement data while wearing the Walkasins device.

While a manned mission to the Red Planet could still be decades away, the research being done now is necessary to make it possible.

“It’s amazing to know that in my lifetime we could land on Mars. To play even a small role and represent UH is a great opportunity,” said Downs.

Combining exercise with the sensory motor countermeasure “has been a dream of mine for years,” said Layne. “It’s tremendously exciting.”