Space travel is affecting astronauts in unexpected way according to NASA, who reported health issues ranging from changes in eye sight to bone density loss to disorientation in returning space explorers. Although humans have been going to space for decades now, all of the effects of weightlessness, radiation, and isolation have yet to be determined, or even discovered. With a manned trip to Mars looming on NASA’s horizon, they want to make sure they have all possible complications of space travel planned for to avoid sending men and women on a journey they may survive but only limp away from.
In 2009, Dr. Michael Barratt was spending six months aboard the International Space Station. During this time, he noticed his vision seemed to be shifting towards farsightedness. Examinations between him and fellow doctor astronaut Robert Thirsk confirmed that their eyes were changing shape, and when they reported this to NASA, a high-definition camera was sent to the ISS to gather more information. The pictures showed that the backs of their eyes were being compressed and there were cloudy spots on their retinas as well as swelling of their optic nerves. A connection was drawn between the tendency for spinal fluid to collect just below the brain due to the lack of gravity pulling it down to be spread as normal. The collected fluid increases pressure on the brain, which was transferred to the eyes as a way to spare the vital organ. Returning astronauts have described the feeling as how it feels to hand upside down for too long. Along with increased brain pressure, the lack of body weight on the legs causes the muscles and bones to weaken, causing trouble upon returning to Earth and potentially crippling explorers on extended journeys. Weightlessness is not the only factor in which space travel is affecting astronauts in unexpected ways; radiation continues to be a major hurdle.
Although all exposed to radiation on a daily basis while going about daily routines, outside of the protection of Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field the energy is much more powerful and its effects are much stronger. NASA has said that it will not attempt a mission that will increase and astronauts likelihood of cancer by more than 3 percent, but several have said they weld accept up to double that amount if it means going to Mars. Since the discovery that space travel is affecting astronauts in unexpected ways, NASA plans to keep the ISS running until at least 2024 in the interest of exploring the effects of long-term space exposure on their astronauts, both physically and mentally. Strides have been made in keeping up with zero gravity induced bone loss, such as running on treadmills under the weight of elastic straps to trick the body into replacing bone mass lost while not supporting its weight, and a solution for squished eyes is only a matter of time. Controlling where the fluids in the body go has already been accomplished for fighter pilots with the use of inflatable bladders built into their flight suits, but controlling fluid in the brain will no doubt prove more difficult.
By Daniel O’Brien