Space travel – not such an easy journey
Travel to another planet is not like a walk in the park. If you think being an astronaut is fun and glamorous, you might want to read up on all the side effects.
Living and working in zero gravity plays havoc on all parts of your body, including your musclar, skeletal and vestibular systems. On top of that, NASA has identified 442 medical conditions that could require emergency attention during long-term missions. Now do you still want to be an astronaut?
Bones & muscle weakening
After a long time in Mars, a young and fit astronaut’s bones and muscles might be weaker than your grandmother’s. Muscles get smaller and weaker in a gravity-free environment, bones stop producing proteins that tell the bones to replace old, worn-out bone cells. So astronauts’ bones become less dense and more rickety, and they suffer osteoporosis-like effects. Astronauts can lose at least 10 times as much bone density per year than a person on Earth.
Workouts help maintain bone and muscular strength and fill the astronauts’ schedules — as many as four hours out of a 16-hour workday. To keep up their muscle and bone strength, astronauts will turn to the gym classics: treadmills, bikes and weights.
Mental and psychological disorders
Mental and social well-being of astronauts could be affected as well. Being confined in small spaces for long durations and the isolation can cause mood disorders, mental diseases and psychological disturbance such as anxiety, depression and claustrophobia. Research into the effects of isolation and confinement on neurological and cognitive processes may help improve future health, safety and mission performance.
A stomach-churning experience
One of the most common and unpleasant effects of going to Mars will be motion sickness, caused when the brain and inner ear receive mixed signals. Between 40 to 50% of astronauts experience this.
On Earth, we can tell which way is up and which way is down because gravity tells us so. Sensors in the inner ear feel this gravitational pull and send information to the brain about our body’s orientation.
In Mars the inner ear will have difficulties telling the brain which is the way ‘up’ and ‘down’; so while our eyes will be able to certainly see a ceiling and floor in the spacecraft, our brains will not be able to register this. This will cause nausea and dizziness. Some astronauts experience headaches and vertigo.
Fortunately, symptoms subside within the first few days of travel and common motion sickness medicine is just as effective in space.
Puffy face and bird legs
Two thirds of our bodies are made up of fluids. On Earth, gravity pulls most of this towards our legs. With 62%less gravity in Mars, fluids will naturally travel upwards into our face and head, causing them to look swollen. This will give astronauts ‘puffy face syndrome’. The extra fluid in the head may lead to blocked noses and sinuses but once astronauts are back on Earth, they’ll return to their normal appearance.
This fluid shift can result in the loss of about a litre of fluid in each leg, creating what some call ‘Bird Legs’.
Under the ray gun
The Earth’s magnetic field protects us from harmful radiation. We are still exposed to small amounts when we go for medical x-rays, when we travel on transcontinental flights or just from radons in the air. However, astronauts will be exposed to 10 times as much radiation – and that’s just in low Earth orbit.
In Mars, astronauts can be exposed to even higher doses. During solar storms, a single dose of radiation could be equivalent to several hundred chest x-rays. Therefore it’s essential that all spacecrafts and stations at Mars have designated storm shelters because large amounts of radiation can cause severe damage by altering DNA in the genes.
BBC. “Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets. “Science & Nature . 2010. BBC. 20/05/2013 http://www.bbc.co.uk/sn/tvradio/programmes/spaceodyssey/healtheffects.shtml