At some point in your life, you probably dreamed of going to outer space. As kids, whether lying in bed and staring up at a glow-in-the-dark star littered ceiling or watching astronauts on television prepare for expeditions, the idea of leaving our planet elicited excitement in us all. Unlike childhood fantasies of slaying dragons or reigning over mythical kingdoms, being an astronaut is an attainable goal – which made it that much more exciting. As adults, even if we’ve abandoned all hope of venturing into space, something inside of us still lights up when we witness space launches or stare through telescopes into the vast landscape of the night sky.
But underneath all the romanticism surrounding space and the secrets it holds, there is an undercurrent of harsh realities that we as civilians rarely hear about.
Aside from catastrophic disasters like the Challenger disintegrating ten miles off the Florida coast, many other issues occur when people are shot up into outer space – many of which are health-related.
Recently, an astronaut named Scott Kelly made headline news not only for spending one of the longest stints on a space shuttle to date (340 days to be exact) but also for reports that his DNA had been altered over the course of his travels. The latter was quickly debunked as false information due to misreporting by a number of news outlets. However, the reason his DNA was being studied in the first place was because doctors were curious what physical ramifications were associated with exposure to such inhospitable climates.
Kelly’s voyage ultimately was the best opportunity for NASA to study what happens to the human body after prolonged exposure to weightlessness, cramped quarters, and damaging radiation.
That’s right. These are all hurdles an astronaut must account for when deciding to launch into space. A person in orbit for an extended period can experience a whole host of health problems associated with lack of gravity, and these issues can be hard to correct once they’ve come back to planet Earth.
Here are some of the weird side-effects astronauts have to deal with when they spend a significant amount of time in orbit:
Motion Sickness and Vertigo: Your inner ears have sensors in them that inform your body when you are in motion or have stopped. They also sense what direction your body is in (i.e., are you standing on your head or lying on your back?) In space, that little mechanism goes awry, which often gives astronauts motion sickness upon entering microgravity. Conversely, this problem can happen upon re-entering the gravitational pull of the Earth. Usually, this problem self-corrects after a few days, but it can make astronauts feel “off.”
It Wreaks Havoc On Muscle And Bone Tissue: One of the first discoveries of physical adversity associated with space was the atrophy of muscle and bone. Floating in space doesn’t lend itself to strong bones and muscle tone – including the heart. On Earth, these body parts use the force of gravity to operate, which means they have to work harder due to the added weight. Without the downward force of gravity, the body works considerably less, causing muscle deterioration and loss of bone density. According to NASA, a month stint in space can result in the same amount of bone density loss as a postmenopausal woman over the course of a year. This startling decrease results in higher calcium levels in the blood, which can lead to a greater incidence of renal stones. To counteract these problems, astronauts exercise vigorously while up in space, using specially designed machines.
Exposure to Radiation: Earth’s magnetic field provides a barrier that protects life on the surface from a significant amount of high-energy radiation. Direct exposure to these cosmic radiation fields would result in chromosomal damage if it weren’t for the protective field around us. Astronauts don’t have that safety barrier, so space crafts are built with artificial shielding to partially protect astronauts from exposure. However, it isn’t effective for all radiation – which leaves astronauts susceptible to a barrage of potential health problems including cancer.
Fluid Retention: Fluids constantly rush through our bodies, and gravity plays a crucial role in making sure blood, nutrients, and oxygen make their way to all of our appendages. But with the absence of gravity, our bodily fluids float up to our head. This phenomenon results in astronauts looking bloated in the face. However, it can be scarier than just looking puffy. This fluidic drift can lead to more serious conditions like pressure on the optic nerve, which can result in vision change.
The good news is that, despite all of these potential health risks, most of the known damage can be reversed or alleviated after an astronaut’s return to Earth. So, if you haven’t given up hope on your dream of becoming a space-invader, don’t let the side-effects dissuade you. With every new health risk professionals find, there are technological advances to counteract them.