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Astronauts on the moon have a new way to stay fit, and it involves the wall of death

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There's a well-known scene from the 1968 film "2001: A Space Odyssey."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY ")

SIMON: Camera follows astronaut Frank Poole as he jogs around the outside edge of a circular spacecraft. He's sticking out sideways from the edge, enjoying the weightlessness of outer space. A group of Italian scientists have come up with a similar method that in theory, at least, could help keep astronauts fit. Alberto Minetti, a professor of physiology at the University of Milan, and a team tested their theory on a wall of death. That's the giant cylinder motorcycle stunt performers ride around the inside of sideways so fast, they don't fall down. Professor Minetti joins us from Milan. Thanks so much for being with us.

ALBERTO MINETTI: It's my pleasure. Thank you.

SIMON: Why can't astronauts just use a treadmill to stay in shape?

MINETTI: (Laughter) Well, the problem with the moon is that we have just a little gravity, and whenever we're trying to run on the surface of the moon vertically - I mean conventionally running, as we would do in jogging and running on Earth - we couldn't reach a very high speed because when we tried to do that, we came up with just bumping on the ground by making big jumps. You need to build up your own artificial gravity.

SIMON: How does running sideways solve that problem?

MINETTI: As you are moving fast on a circular path, you develop a centrifugal force that you contrast with your centripetal force produced by your foot muscles, and so you feel a higher gravity with respect to the moon.

SIMON: How would your idea work?

MINETTI: Well, on the Earth, you need to emulate the lunar gravity, so we need to use some sorts of rubber bands. Well, they're actually bungee jumping cords that we extend 40 meters on the top of the subject. And by using a harness on the subject, we could remove a great part of the body weight. At that time, then your weight is exactly the weight that you would have on the moon, and so whenever - whichever movement you are doing, it's a movement that is in a simulated lower gravity.

Then you need to try to start moving on the inside of this big cylinder, and that is the real challenge because our subjects had some difficulties at the beginning, but after a few attempts, they were capable of putting themselves into position and stay horizontal during two, three or four laps.

SIMON: And so you did this inside what's called the wall of death?

MINETTI: Yes, we had to rent one from people from amusement parks, and we have only one in Italy.

SIMON: So this is a serious project.

MINETTI: Well, I hope so, actually. Many things in science start from a curiosity. One of our points of curiosity was just to check, what are the locomotion types that we cannot do on Earth that could be possible in other planets? We are just demonstrating, first of all, that we can do something that on the Earth, we couldn't do in the wall of death by running.

SIMON: You going to try it?

MINETTI: Oh, no, I'm 69. That's impossible.

SIMON: I would root for you. Alberto Minetti is a professor of physiology at the University of Milan. Thanks so much for being with us.

MINETTI: Oh, it was my pleasure. Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD STRAUSS' "ALSO SPRACH ZARATHUSTRA (OPENING FANFARE)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.