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Alumna living her dream at NASA

May 24, 2010
By Lana Hoff

From the time she was a child in Louisiana, Tara Ruttley ('98, B.S., '00 M.S.), has been fascinated with space exploration and discovery. Since viewing her first space shuttle launch, she has followed NASA's missions and scientific achievements, particularly in the medical field. Now, through hard work and an unfailing sense of optimism, Ruttley is realizing her lifelong dream of taking human health research to new heights and depths.

Undergrad student design project steered career path

Alumna Tara Ruttley has developed a detector that can sense the presence of a toxic fuel on astronauts' spacesuits following a spacewalk.

Ruttley’s first contact with NASA began when she led Colorado State University’s American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics student design team in creating a novel gravity-independent, resistive exercise machine to help prevent muscle atrophy and bone weakness on long space voyages.

CSU’s team of mechanical engineering, biology, and exercise physiology students named their creation the Constant Force Resistive Exercise Unit. Their unique design earned the team a trip to Johnson Space Center to participate in NASA’s reduced-gravity flight program for undergraduates. This program gave the students an opportunity to test their exercise machine in a microgravity environment during KC-135 airplane flights that followed a trajectory of a series of parabolas over the Gulf of Mexico.

The experience working with mechanical engineers prompted Ruttley to change her focus and expand on her bachelor’s degree in biology.

Space-related hardware

“I decided I wanted to be able to build hardware based on meeting the needs of the world of physiology or medicine, and it had to be space-related. CSU gave me the support I needed to make this happen by encouraging me to pursue a master’s in mechanical engineering with a biomedical concentration.”

NASA’s support was equally in evidence. Ruttley’s team received a $70,000 NASA contract to build and test a bigger and better prototype. When she and her husband, Paul Colosky (B.S., M.S. Health and Exercise Science), graduated from CSU, they applied for and received a patent on the CFREU design.

Underwater tests to simulate space mission

Ruttley’s next project with NASA involved testing their exercise equipment in an underwater habitat during a simulated space mission. The extreme environment of living in an underwater habitat for long periods of time serves as an ideal environment to simulate the day-to-day tasks of living and working in space. Ruttley had a chance to experience that firsthand when she joined a team of aquanauts on NASA’s NEEMO 6 mission (NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations) in 2004.

“The NEEMO team decided that the addition of an exercise machine to our mission would add to the space simulation component, since astronauts have to exercise daily in space,” says Ruttley.

Living and working underwater for 10 days

Ruttley (lower left) and three astronauts lived and worked in an underwater habitat for 10 days to test environmental and physiological monitoring hardware for possible use during spaceflights.

“We needed something that could also be evaluated for potential use in space one day, so I suggested the CFREU, and we subsequently redesigned the machine that we had developed at CSU, rebuilding it with features that would be suitable for potential spaceflight. The NEEMO mission also tested technology such as environmental and physiological monitoring hardware that NASA had an interest in possibly pursuing for spaceflight. Three astronauts and I were living and working in an underwater habitat for 10 days, in a space analog environment.

Use of the CFREU allowed us to integrate exercise into daily routine, as would be done in space, but it was also a way to get engineering feedback on how we might be able to improve on the design further if it should potentially be used in space one day.

Exploring health for life on Earth

“The human body is designed to live in our gravity environment,” continues Ruttley. “The thing I love most about spaceflight research on the human body is the fact that when the gravity vector is removed, the behavior of so many systems changes in a way that uncovers so many hidden components and pathways that we never realized existed. Understanding these hidden changes has led to meaningful improvements in life on Earth.”

Ruttley’s lead role in the CFREU project brought her to the attention of a new NASA office charged with developing medical hardware designed to mitigate issues experienced by astronauts who worked in microgravity conditions.

Hired by NASA's Biomedical Systems Division

Alumna Tara Ruttley is NASA's associate program scientist for the International Space Station.

“I was hired by the Biomedical Systems Division as the only engineer with a biomedical concentration,” she explains. Ruttley’s first project was to develop a detector that can sense the presence of hydrazine (a toxic fuel for the International Space Station) on astronauts’ spacesuits following a spacewalk. She then began working on different aspects of the exercise bicycle that is still in use by International Space Station, or ISS, crews.

Recently, Ruttley’s role at NASA expanded significantly when she was named associate program scientist for the ISS. She and her team are involved in representing, evaluating, prioritizing, and reporting on all experiments conducted by the ISS crew. Around 150 experiments are currently on board the ISS, covering a wide range of human health, engineering, and science topics.

Coordinates projects for the International Space Station

Ruttley also coordinates projects for the ISS partners in Japan, Canada, Russia, and Europe, and communicates the latest scientific and technological discoveries to the public and professional groups.

A true advocate for education and consummate multitasker, Ruttley completed her Ph.D. in neuroscience in 2007 from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston while concurrently working as an engineer at NASA Johnson Space Center. Ruttley serves as an adjunct professor at the University of Houston, teaching courses in human physiology with an enthusiasm she learned from CSU’s anatomy instructor, Mark Frasier.

When young people ask her the secrets of her success, Ruttley, a former McNair Scholar, passes on a favorite quote from Ronald McNair: “Whether or not you reach your goals in life depends entirely on how well you prepare for them and how badly you want them.”


Excerpt from story originally published in the College of Engineering Human Health newsletter, Spring 2010.