ISS astronauts working out on the OHB “Flywheel” fitness device for the first time

De Winne testing Flywheel
ISS Commander Frank De Winne testing the Flywheel device onboard the ISS

On Wednesday, ESA astronaut Frank De Winne (Belgium) was the first member of the International Space Station ISS crew to use the "Flywheel", a fitness device developed and built by Bremen-based OHB-System AG. The "Flywheel" is designed to address the risk of muscle and bone atrophy afflicting astronauts in space.

In a total of eight different exercises, the Flywheel trains the muscles of the legs, arms and chest. In contrast to the equipment mostly used in the past, it covers nearly all the main parts of the muscular system. The "Flywheel" supplements the existing sports equipment on board the ISS such as an exercise bike, a treadmill and a gym with hydraulic resistance.

The main element of the new ISS fitness device is a flywheel, to which the device owes its name, operating in yoyo fashion. During exercise, a belt is unwound from the axis of the flywheel and then rewound. Using the belt, the astronaut must accelerate the flywheel and then retard it on the rebound. This forces the muscles to work in both directions, exerting both concentric and eccentric strain. This "yoyo" motion results in particularly effective training. As no mechanical weights are necessary, training is possible even in the absence of gravity, allowing the fitness device to be used in the weightless conditions prevailing on board the ISS.

The idea is based on a patent owned by YoYo Technology AG, Stockholm, a member of the OHB project team. In developing the flywheel, OHB attached great importance to simple and very safe use so that an individual astronaut on board the ISS can use it independently without any risk of injury.

Looking forward, the "Flywheel" is to be kept on board the space station as an alternative means of fitness training for the ISS crew. The preliminary model currently being used is a prototype for a future standard model which it will also be possible to deploy on long-term missions to the moon or Mars. In this sense, the ISS is also serving as a test laboratory for future manned space missions, offering an ideal platform for gaining experience with such new systems.

The "Flywheel" was transported to the ISS in February 2008 together with the Columbus research laboratory. Since then, intensive training studies and safety checks have been performed on a second prototype with the involvement of ESA as well as the German Sport University in Cologne. As a result, it recently received initial certification for arm and chest exercises in space.

Astronaut Frank De Winne, who is currently the commander of the six-strong ISS crew, has now become the first person to use the "Flywheel" after undergoing extensive pre-mission tuition at the European Space Center (EAC) in Cologne. In this way, he has been able to confirm that the device withstood transportation to the ISS and is working perfectly.

At the same time, the vibration caused by "Flywheel" training on board the ISS was measured. Such measurements are performed for each new training device as the strong movements caused by the device during use may disrupt the weightless conditions for other experiments.

Up until now, the "Flywheel" was stored in two hatches in the ETC (European Transport Carrier) transport rack. De Winne unpacked it and assembled the roughly 10 individual parts prior to using it for the first time. It is being operated with the EPM (European Physiology Modules) rack, which supplies it with electricity and collects data for transmission to the ground. Also developed and built by OHB, the EPM and the ETC constitute firm parts of the European Columbus research laboratory.

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Günther Hörbst
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