Space tourism is a newly introduced luxury that will potentially become reality very soon. There are numerrous companies trying to scale their technology to make this possible. Take for example Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, which is currently open for bids for a seat on its New Shepard flight planned for July 2021 (current high bid: $2.8 million). Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezaw also announced a new project named “dearMoon,” which will enable 8 civilians to join a “week-long Starship mission around the Moon in 2023.” These are just two of the biggest names in space travel, with many more smaller companies ramping up their operations with scalable space-travel in mind.
Indeed, as the prospects of space travel are slowly becoming more promising, one can’t help but wonder: am I cut out for space travel? Can my body handle the rigors of outer space? After all, venturing into space is by no means for the faint-hearted. The body undergoes a significant amount of change, including functioning in reduced gravity, being exposed to solar radiation, and undergoing muscle atrophy— just to name a few of the many health effects.
Since the beginning of space travel nearly 60 years ago, the scientific community has invested significant resources in understanding what exactly happens to the human body during space travel.
A recent report published in Nature describes a study undertaken to determine how muscle mass and strength is affected during spaceflight. The study, conducted in collaboration with the University of Tsukuba, “set two murine [mouse] experimental groups in orbit for 35 days aboard the International Space Station, under artificial earth-gravity (artificial 1g; AG) and microgravity (μg; MG), to investigate whether artificial 1g exposure prevents muscle atrophy at the molecular level.” The results were definitely jarring. The paper authors explain that their “main findings indicated that AG onboard environment prevented changes under microgravity in soleus muscle not only in muscle mass and fiber type composition but also in the alteration of gene expression profiles. In particular, transcriptome analysis suggested that AG condition could prevent the alterations of some atrophy-related genes.”
These findings are congruent with that of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). In fact, a NASA fact sheet explains: “…the absence of gravity makes working in a spacecraft physically undemanding. On Earth, we must constantly use certain muscles to support ourselves against the force of gravity. These muscles, commonly called antigravity muscles, include the calf muscles, the quadriceps and the muscles of the back and neck. Because astronauts work in a weightless environment, very little muscle contraction is needed to support their bodies or move around.” The fact sheet provides startling statistics: “Studies have shown that astronauts experience up to a 20 percent loss of muscle mass on spaceflights lasting five to 11 days […] Astronauts on the International Space Station spend 2 1/2 hours per day exercising to combat the effects of muscle atrophy.”
Other aspects of human spaceflight are equally worth considering. According to NASA, the first hazard on their list is exposure to space radiation, which the agency states “increases cancer risk, damages the central nervous system, can alter cognitive function, reduce motor function and prompt behavioral changes.” Moreover, the agency lists “Isolation and confinement” and “Hostile/closed environments” as two other prominent concerns, highlighting that space travel has significant impacts on mental and behavioral health, in addition to the physical toll.
The European Space Agency “has teamed up with five particle accelerators in Europe that can recreate cosmic radiation by ‘shooting’ atomic particles to speeds approaching the speed of light. Researchers have been bombarding biological cells and materials with radiation to understand how to best protect astronauts.”
“The research is paying off,” according to physicist Marco Durante, who also explains that “Lithium is standing out as a promising material for shielding in planetary missions.”
NASA’s Human Research Program (HRP) is another pioneer in the research arena. The agency “partners with external entities in researching and developing innovative approaches to reduce risks to humans on long-duration exploration missions, including NASA’s Journey to Mars. One of these partnerships is the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH) […] The mission of the TRISH is to lead a national effort in translating cutting edge emerging terrestrial biomedical research and technology development into applied space flight human risk mitigation strategies for human exploration missions.”
There are still so many intricacies to delve into and so much research yet to be done with regards to the effects of space travel on the human body. Indeed, as the new-age “space race” and interest in space tourism continues to accelerate, only time will tell as to how humanity will confront the challenges and experiences that this new frontier entails.
This Article firstly Publish on www.forbes.com