Brussels, 22 Sep 2004
German athlete Wojtek Czyz broke the Paralympic record for the 100 metres in the T42 category at the Athens Paralympics on 21 September and used space technology to do so. He is also hoping for a gold medal in his favourite event, the long jump.
Mr Czyz lost part of his left leg in an accident three years ago. Passionate about sport, he continued to train using a prosthesis. The standard prosthesis was, however, not ideal for the athlete's events, particularly the long jump.
'I had a big problem with my old prosthesis as the connecting angle between the knee and the lower-leg spring often broke when I was doing long jump,' said Mr Czyz. This not only created a practical problem, but a psychological barrier: 'When I exercised I was always worried that my artificial leg wouldn't hold, and I never knew how far I could push myself and the prosthesis when jumping.'
The European Space Agency (ESA) and MST Aerospace, the German technology transfer broker managing ESA's technology transfer network, became aware of Mr Czyz's predicament and resolved to investigate the possibility of finding a solution based on space technology.
One of the main problems was identified as the knee joint - an L-shaped bracket between the artificial knee and the carbon feather that replaces the lower leg. A company with experience in developing high-performance materials for use in space was contacted, and was able to manufacture two new brackets - one for sprinting and one for the long jump. The former is made from a high-strength aluminium alloy, while the latter is assembled using carbon fibre and fabric layers.
The role of space technology in Mr Czyz's preparations for Athens was not restricted to his prosthesis. The athlete had also experienced problems fitting the prosthesis to his leg. 'Depending on my general health, the size of my stump can widen or narrow; making it difficult to attach the prosthesis securely. It has even fallen off during some training sessions,' he said. Discussions between the European Astronaut Centre and the European Healthcare Network (also attached to ESA) resulted in Mr Czyz experimenting with the 'percutaneous electrical muscle stimulator' (PEMS). PEMS was developed in order to prevent muscle atrophy, bone mineralization and cardiovascular de-conditioning in astronauts.
'I was able to train for ten weeks with PEMS. This improved the muscle mass of my leg so that I no longer have problems fitting my prosthesis. Even when I am not well, the muscle mass of my leg remains the same,' said Mr Czyz.
Finally, Mr Czyz has been wearing a training suit made of a shape memory membrane. The fabric is usually used for the manufacture of collapsible wheels on planetary rovers, as well as for deployable space structures.