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We see it in science fiction movies all the time: humans settling on Mars or venturing into the far reaches of space. Though technology has certainly brought the fiction closer to becoming reality, one ongoing challenge stands in the way of conquering space: the human body.
As they soar into space, many astronauts experience nausea and even vomiting — not exactly a stellar start. When they return, they can experience blurred vision, headaches, muscle atrophy, weak bones and possibly even lung cancer from galactic cosmic radiation — the equivalent of 10 chest X-rays a day.
“The biggest change [while living on the space station] is exposure to radiation. So that is increased by 100-fold compared to what we are exposed to here on Earth,” said Raffi Kuyumjian, flight surgeon for the Canadian Space Agency. He worked with Chris Hadfield, before, during and after his five-month stint on the International Space Station from December 2012 to May 2013.
While no astronauts who have lived aboard the space station have reported having cancer, it may still be too early to tell.
If there’s anyone who can tell you about the challenges of living in space, it’s Scott Kelly. He spent 340 days in space together with Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko as part of the One-Year Mission to study the effects of long-duration spaceflight.
But that wasn’t the biggest challenge — that came while orbiting 400 kilometres above Earth.
“It’s not the personal risk…it was this idea that you kinda feel helpless.”
And he knows all about helplessness. In 2011, his sister-in-law, congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, was shot in Arizona. Kelly was aboard the International Space Station with two months left in his mission at the time.
Space flight surgeons and space agencies are acutely aware of the the psychological challenges space poses — and that’s just with an average of six months on a space station. If humans are to go to Mars, they’ll likely be away from loved ones for nearly two years at the least.
Then there’s the lack of natural sunlight, which can affect moods.
NASA is in the midst of retrofitting the ISS with light bulbs that change in frequency, with the “day” light mimicking natural light, with less blue light that can disrupt circadian rhythms. Astronauts must also take vitamin D supplements.
‘I never — even after 340 days — felt completely normal.’ – Scott Kelly, NASA astronaut
Then there are muscle atrophy and changes in bone structure that can accompany time in space.
Astronauts lose bone density and the very structure of their bones changes under microgravity.
Human bones have evolved to fight against gravity. As astronauts exercise in space (to combat muscle atrophy, or the wasting of muscle), bone can reform. But without gravity, there is no longer a need for them to form in the same manner as on Earth.
“The density itself isn’t the only issue: it’s the bone architecture,” Kuyumjian said. “The fact that the bone architecture is disturbed and we’re not getting that architecture back, that is probably lost for good.”
Kelly said that the longer you spend in space the more accustomed you became to the various changes. But it never felt perfect.
“You always feel a little bit better the longer you’re there, but I never — even after 340 days — felt completely normal,” he said.
“If we want to go to Mars, we can do that,” Kelly said.