14 May 2014

Space is bad for you

About the consequences of flights to the stars

Richard Hollingham, BBCIn real space, it's hard to look as good as Sandra Bullock did in the movies

Many dream of flying into orbit, to the moon, or even further. But those who actually go into space face a number of health hazards.

According to the doctor from the cult TV series "Star Trek" Leonard McCoy (aka Croaker, aka Bony), "space is diseases and dangers wrapped in darkness and silence." And he's right about a lot of things. Traveling in space can make you weak, tired, sick and, with a certain degree of probability, suffering from depression.

"We are not adapted to exist in an airless space, our evolution did not include such a thing," says Kevin Fong, founder of the Center for the Study of Medicine in Extreme Conditions, in Space and at High Altitudes at University College London and author of the book "The Limit. Life, death and the possibilities of the human body."

"It is wrong to consider a trip to space as just a long flight, during which objects float around you in the air. This is an expedition, no less serious than any other," he believes.

Imagine that you were lucky enough to fly into space. And here you are lying in a chair and counting the seconds until the start. What should you expect from your body? How will it behave in the coming minutes, hours, days and months? We asked scientists, engineers and astronauts about this, who know from experience what happens to a person in conditions when our body is in a completely artificial, alien situation for him. How to deal with it?

10 seconds after the start. Possible loss of consciousnessThe spacecraft separates from the launch complex, and the acceleration increases to 4G.

You feel four times heavier than your normal weight. You are pressed into the chair, it is very difficult to even move your hand.

"Due to overload, the blood shifts to the legs, and in order to stay conscious, we need to provide blood supply to the brain," John Scott, a senior researcher at the laboratory for the study of Human Capabilities, explained to me when I visited the QinetiQ centrifuge in Farnborough in the south of England.

Due to the fact that the blood drains from the head, military pilots, even at relatively low overloads, have a gray veil before their eyes. However, in modern manned spacecraft, for example, in the Russian Soyuz, the cosmonaut's pose is chosen in such a way (with raised legs) to direct blood from the legs to the chest and further to the head.

10 minutes after the start. Nausea"First of all, astronauts complain of nausea and vomiting," says Fong.

The absence of gravity affects our inner ear, which is responsible for the sense of balance, coordination and orientation in space. "And it [the lack of gravity] reduces the ability to track moving objects," he adds.

Even if you do not pay attention to the balls of vomit flying in zero gravity on the capsule, "space sickness" can cause weakness and inability to perform assigned tasks.

One such case almost disrupted the Apollo lunar program. During the Apollo 9 flight (this was the first test of the lunar lander in orbit) Rusty Schweikart was initially unable to complete some of the tasks assigned, and the duration of the spacewalk had to be shortened.

Anousheh Ansari, who became the first female space tourist, also said that she had to face nausea, vomiting and loss of orientation.

Two days after the start. Swollen faceI recently interviewed Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield.

According to him, his nose was constantly blocked in orbit. In space, we seem to be constantly standing on our heads; fluid accumulates in the upper part of the body. The result is facial swelling. It looks like swelling of the legs during a long flight.

"When we find ourselves in weightlessness, the body's systems continue to work, and since they do not meet resistance in the form of gravity, the tissues of the head swell."

But the fact that you will look fatter than usual is not a problem. Recent studies also show that spaceflight can affect vision. Researchers from the University of Texas examined astronauts using MRI scanners, and two-thirds of those surveyed had deviations from the norm.

"We have not yet found out the reasons for this," admits NASA representative William Jeffs. "In addition to small changes in vision, some astronauts have had edema of the optic nerve, retinal changes, and deformity of the eyeball. Probably due to increased intracranial pressure."

A week after the start. Reduction of muscle and bone massWhen gravity is absent, our body begins to degrade.

Before you decide to take your first step on Mars, take care of your bones and muscles!

"Many systems of our body need gravity for proper functioning," explains Fong. "In some experiments, rats lost up to a third of their muscle mass in seven to ten days of flight – and this is a lot!" The heart muscle also degrades.

When you are in orbit, for example, on the International Space Station, this is not such a big problem. But let's imagine that you are planning a flight to Mars. You land 200 million kilometers from home, and your crew can't walk…

Since the beginning of the space age, scientists have been puzzling over how to help astronauts maintain physical fitness. Each member of the ISS crew devotes an hour a day to cardio training and another hour to strength exercises. Despite this, when they return to Earth after a six-month watch in orbit, it is difficult for them to walk.

The lack of gravity also affects the bones. They dissolve–almost literally. "In some bearing areas, losses of 1-2% per month were observed," says Fong. "These are very significant losses of bone tissue and a huge amount of calcium that gets into the blood."

For future researchers ready to set foot on the surface of Mars for the first time, this may prove to be a serious obstacle. It would be a shame if such an important step for humanity ends with a banal leg fracture.

Two weeks after the launch. Insomnia"Insomnia is one of the most common problems," says Fong, "the circadian rhythms of astronauts, their daylight cycle – everything goes awry."

In orbit, where the Sun rises every 90 minutes, astronauts have a hard time adjusting to the absence of a natural night.

In addition, they are overexcited due to being in space, work in shifts, and even have to get used to sleeping in a sleeping bag, strapped to the wall.

To combat sleep deprivation, separate sleeping compartments are equipped on the ISS, which can be darkened, simulating the night. A new LED lighting system is being tested, designed to reduce the unnatural sharpness of light on board the station.

A year after the start. DiseasesThere is growing evidence that space flight has a harmful effect on the immune system.

NASA researchers have found that the white blood cells of fruit flies in orbit are less effective at absorbing foreign microorganisms and fighting infection than those of genetically identical flies left on Earth.

This study is confirmed by other works. Other insects, mice and salamanders in space are becoming more vulnerable to diseases. Most likely, the matter is again in the absence of gravity.

The impact of cosmic radiation gives even more grounds for alarm. Astronauts often report that they "see" bright flashes of light. The reason is the cosmic rays passing through their brains. And this is despite the fact that the ISS rotates in a fairly low orbit, and the Earth's atmosphere partially protects the inhabitants of the station from harsh cosmic radiation. But in deep space, for example, on the way to the Moon or Mars, the possibility of getting a lethal dose of radiation is becoming more and more real. This can make long flights too dangerous.

However, observations of the astronauts of the Apollo program, who spent several days in deep space aboard a poorly protected capsule, did not reveal an increased likelihood of cancer.

Two years after the launch. DepressionYou survived the takeoff, overcame nausea, learned to sleep in space and do exercises so that upon arrival on Mars you can confidently step onto its surface.

You're in great physical shape. But how do you feel psychologically?

In June 2010, the European Space Agency and the Russian Institute of Biomedical Problems sent six people on a 520-day "flight to Mars". The flight simulation took place on the outskirts of Moscow in a mock-up of a spaceship. The stress associated with a long flight and the problems caused by isolation were investigated.

The trip to Mars went well. It was an exciting adventure, and the crew had a lot to do. The "walk on Mars" also went well. The most difficult part was the final part of the flight – the return to Earth. Daily chores became burdensome, crew members were easily annoyed. The days dragged by slowly. In general, the participants were overcome by boredom.

How to solve the psychological problems of people trapped in a cramped automated tin can, drinking recycled urine and watching the endless airless space through the portholes? Specialists of space agencies continue to work on this task.

"The psychological health of our astronauts has always occupied us no less than their physical condition," says Jeffs. "Constant behavioral training, research and improvement of communication technologies are all designed to help prevent any potential problems."

To do this, first of all, you need to recruit the right people into the crews. A nervous breakdown in an astronaut is the worst thing that can happen.

Many years of evolution have adapted us to life in conditions of stable Earth gravity. The atmosphere gives us protection and provides an opportunity to breathe. Probably, some version of artificial gravity will partially solve the problem, but space in any case poses a serious threat to human health.

Next year, NASA plans to launch a one-year experiment on the ISS to study in more detail the consequences of a long space flight for astronauts. In the meantime, anyone who decides to leave the relatively safe orbit of our planet and go to other worlds should remember: there is still no doctor on Earth like the iconic character from Star Trek. There is also no technology that he used during his service in Starfleet.

About the author
Richard Hollingham is a journalist and host of the Space Explorers podcast. He edits the magazine Space:UK for the British Space Agency, acts as a launch commentator for the European Space Agency and hosts scientific programs on BBC Radio.

The original article in English can be read on the BBC Future website.

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