Saturday, April 16, 2016

Space Travel: How Does Outer Space Affect Your Body?

By Rachael Metzger, MSS Intern

          Have you ever wanted to become an astronaut? Travel to space? Have you dreamed about finding extraterrestrial life or communing with aliens? If your answer is yes, I can assure you that you’re not alone. Countless children dream of becoming astronauts, and many movies and TV shows have revolved around exploring space. The exploration of the unknown is a wonderful idea on paper, but it is a lot more complicated than jumping into a spaceship and traveling to Mars, even if we have the technology to do so. Space travel can take a huge toll on a human’s body if certain precautions are not taken; any error could result in death.
        The human body was not made to travel in space, nor has it had time to adapt to such an environment. When launched into space, some effects of that changed environment on the body take longer than others to be felt. Immediately one might experience nausea and/ or vomiting. This is caused by the sensitivity of the inner ear which affects balance and orientation. Thankfully, in a couple of days the inner ear will have adapted to the new environment and the nausea will dissipate (BBC “future”).
        In about two days, bodily fluids will rise to the upper body and face, causing a bloated appearance, and tissues will swell in the head, making a person feel like they are hanging upside down. This makes the body think that it is over-hydrated and it forces the liquid out through urine, causing astronauts to have 20% less fluids in their body while in space.  
Bodily Fluids in Space 
        Spaceflight can also quickly affect eyesight, creating anomalies such as optic nerve swelling, retinal changes in the shape of the eye, and other negative effects to the eye 
        In a week’s time muscle and bone loss can start to occur, and this sometimes includes heart muscle because not as much effort is needed to pump blood in anti-gravity. The lack of gravity can have such an extreme effect on bones that they can become very brittle; this is called “disuse osteoporosis” (The Dallas Morning News “Preparing Bodies for Liftoff”). Even astronauts' skin will get thinner, making them more prone to cuts and infections which take longer to heal in space. Sleep deprivation is another problem among astronauts. Because of the change in the light-dark cycle, it can be a challenge for the body to adapt to the new sleeping schedule (NASA).  
The Effects of Space Travel on the Body

       After a while aboard a spacecraft, astronauts may find their immune system becoming less effective, making them more susceptible to diseases. Cosmic radiation is another huge issue facing astronauts. Astronauts seeing flashes of light in their brains is proof of the cosmic radiation. Astronauts' brains could suffer brain damage from cosmic rays over long periods in deep space, affecting their mental performance (BBC "future").
        All these dangers could be fatal and might make space travel seem impossible, but there are many precautions being taken to allow us to explore our universe in a safer way. Nausea and vomiting can not always be avoided, but anti-nausea pills and a strong stomach help towards inner ear balance in space. To battle losing 20% of bodily fluids, astronauts must stay well hydrated while their bodies adjust to the new climate. The rising of bodily fluids to the upper body may be uncomfortable but has not  been linked to long lasting negative effects on astronauts, and it subsides after a couple of days. Bone and muscle loss is one of the largest problems facing astronauts. On the International Space Station, astronauts stay fit with a machine for weight lifting, a treadmill adapted for microgravity, and a Cyclergometer, which is a modified cycler for microgravity (NASA). Astronauts have a very strict sleeping schedule to try and achieve the maximum hours of sleep possible. Astronauts have to be very careful of keeping waste and bacteria contained that could contaminate their lowered immune systems. For long expeditions such as to Mars, radiation  protection is being experimented with in the forms of water, waste, plastic, and many other substances.
         Being an astronaut involves more than just knowing about your area of study, it requires knowledge of how the human body operates. If your dream is to become an astronaut, consider the risks, know about your body, but don’t be scared off. Medical and technological advances continue to make space flight safer and easier on the human body, presenting an opportunity to explore space to a further extent.