A model that uses hindlimb unloading of rats was developed to study the consequences of skeletal unloading and reloading as occurs during and following space flight. Studies using the model were initiated two decades ago and further developed at National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)-Ames Research Center. The model mimics some aspects of exposure to microgravity by removing weightbearing loads from the hindquarters and producing a cephalic fluid shift. Unlike space flight, the forelimbs remain loaded in the model, providing a useful internal control to distinguish between the local and systemic effects of hindlimb unloading. Rats that are hindlimb unloaded by tail traction gain weight at the same rate as pairfed controls, and glucocorticoid levels are not different from controls, suggesting that systemic stress is minimal. Unloaded bones display reductions in cancellous osteoblast number, cancellous mineral apposition rate, trabecular bone volume, cortical periosteal mineralization rate, total bone mass, calcium content, and maturation of bone mineral relative to controls. Subsequent studies reveal that these changes also occur in rats exposed to space flight. In hindlimb unloaded rats, bone formation rates and masses of unloaded bones decline relative to controls, while loaded bones do not change despite a transient reduction in serum 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D (1,25D) concentrations. Studies using the model to evaluate potential countermeasures show that 1,25D, growth hormone, dietary calcium, alendronate, and muscle stimulation modify, but do not completely correct, the suppression of bone growth caused by unloading, whereas continuous infusion of transforming growth factor-beta2 or insulin-like growth factor-1 appears to protect against some of the bone changes caused by unloading. These results emphasize the importance of local as opposed to systemic factors in the skeletal response to unloading, and reveal the pivotal role that osteoblasts play in the response to gravitational loading. The hindlimb unloading model provides a unique opportunity to evaluate in detail the physiological and cellular mechanisms of the skeletal response to weightbearing loads, and has proven to be an effective model for space flight.