As well as performing important experiments in space, astronauts have to undergo a plethora of tests themselves. And that happens before, during and after they’ve been in orbit. Yes, as soon as they touchdown, they’re poked and prodded so that experts can examine how time in space may have had an impact on their bodies. And when NASA studied the blood of one particular astronaut, they found a concerning new side effect that comes as a result of venturing beyond Earth’s border.
Clearly, the human body wasn’t originally built to survive the environment in space. And without the constant pull of gravity, it’s not uncommon for astronauts to experience some rather odd and dangerous changes in their bodies. As such, NASA scientists closely monitor those who are about to or already have spent time beyond Earth’s boundary. That research includes recording vital signs, taking saliva swabs and blood tests as well as conducting ultrasound scans.
Those procedures aren’t just performed once, of course, as results are needed from pre-launch to post-landing and even during the mission. Incredibly, when astronauts today test themselves in orbit, the results get transmitted back to NASA headquarters. And all of this data then forms part of the space agency’s Human Research Program (HRP), which is dedicated to finding and fixing the ill-effects of being off-planet.
From coping with weightlessness in a zero-gravity environment to the unpredictable behavior of microbes in space, anything and everything about travel beyond Earth is studied in great detail. The health of the astronauts in orbit is constantly monitored, and in the rare case of a medical problem, they’re all trained in CPR. But there’s also another aim behind all of this data-gathering.
That’s right: the test results should eventually help astronauts cope with the long-term effects of space travel. NASA, you see, is planning an extended manned trip to Mars, where the journey to get there would alone take at least three years. And while we have no idea how the human body would cope being weightless for that long, the HRP data is building up a detailed picture of the potential pitfalls.
So far, NASA has learned an immense amount about space travel. Having sent nearly 600 people into orbit – some lucky astronauts to the moon and many to the International Space Station (ISS) – the agency knows that everyday life off-planet is almost nothing like living on Earth. This presents a huge challenge for everyone involved.
Living in zero gravity can affect many bodily processes – from sleep patterns to appetite. And on top of that, every astronaut on a mission to the ISS is responsible for research, maintaining their own health and fitness as well as the repair and maintenance of the station itself. Yes, taking care of the ISS can include basic repair work and even spacewalks for larger jobs, all of which they do weightless.
For those of us who haven’t been to space, it’s probably very difficult to picture what living in zero gravity actually feels like. Well, former astronaut Dr. James Pawelczyk described his experience to Britain’s Daily Express newspaper in September 2019. He said, “If you can imagine yourself falling, but not feeling any wind, that is exactly the sensation you have of being in space.” And having traveled around the Earth a whopping 256 times, he clearly knows what he’s talking about.
Pawelczyk went on, “If you close your eyes [in orbit], you are immediately reaching out for something to grab. You are almost overwhelmed by the falling sensation, but you come to adapt to it over time.” The former astronaut also explained the real-world situation behind that feeling of plummeting through space.
Pawelczyk continued, “When we are in orbit, what we are doing is literally falling around the Earth. It is just the Earth’s surface rotates out of the way before we hit it.” But for some astronauts, that very practical view of space travel gives way to something much more poetic.
Veteran space traveler Marsha Ivins, who spent 55 days in orbit, is one such astronaut. Talking to Wired magazine in 2014, she explained her reaction to being in space. “You look down at Earth and realize you’re not on it. It’s breathtaking. It’s surreal. It’s a ‘We’re not in Kansas any more, Toto,’ kind of feeling.”
Ivins went on, “Space travel […] isn’t glamorous. But you can’t beat the view!” Yes, it seems being in orbit some 200 miles above the Earth and traveling at about 18,000mph isn’t all cool floating water droplets and multiple sunrises. As the astronaut told the magazine, “It can be crowded, noisy and occasionally uncomfortable.”
Astronauts like Irvins are there to conduct vital research, after all. And she went on to talk more about what it’s like to work in orbit. “[We] were always busy – experiments, daily maintenance […] robotic operations,” she said. “It was incredibly hard work, stressful in its own way and scary.” That fear is arguably understandable, given that the alien environment is nothing like what they’re used to.
For instance, even simple things like sleeping, eating and using the toilet present their own, very specific, challenges on the ISS. Astronauts have to tie themselves down to rest, or they’ll float into the station’s equipment. Ivins explained more about the process to Wired magazine. “You strap your sleeping bag to the wall or the ceiling or the floor, wherever you want and get in. It’s like camping.”
After strapping down your legs and head, Irvin said, “If you don’t tuck your arms into the bag, they drift out in front of you.” And mealtimes don’t sound much easier, either. There are few kitchen appliances in space, so meals are mostly freeze-dried in advance and transported to the ISS. Snacks are then warmed up in a small oven. And it seems that after years of research, one foodstuff comes out on top as the perfect space treat: peanut butter. Why? No crumbs.
Of course, at some point during an astronaut’s day, they’ll have to use the bathroom. And this is just another bodily function that changes in a zero-gravity environment. While hovering above the loo, ISS residents have to strap themselves down to keep from floating away. And you don’t want to know what happens when they flush… Clearly, then, the peculiarities of space travel can be tricky. But they’re nothing compared to the physical issues that space travelers may face.
A zero-gravity environment has an effect on anything that existed on Earth before journeying into orbit. For humans, this inevitably means there will be physical consequences of leaving the safety of their home planet. What’s less quantifiable, though, are the emotional side effects of space travel. Missions can last from days to months, and in one case, an entire year. And, naturally, that can take a serious toll on ISS residents.
As you may expect, the physical and emotional distance from family members can present problems for astronauts. Add this to essentially being trapped in a gigantic floating can, and mental health issues while on board the ISS can be difficult to avoid. Yes, according to NASA, it doesn’t matter how much training you’ve had, and “the more confined and isolated humans are, the more likely they are to develop behavioral and cognitive conditions and psychiatric disorders.”
Having studied the effects of space travel on the human body for over ten years, NASA knows it’s very likely astronauts will experience several physical changes in a weightless environment. For one, fluid from the lower half of your body floats toward your head. According to Ivins, “It’s a great facelift,” but your face does swell. And that migration of blood also causes other issues.
Yes, aside from the aesthetic benefits, the migration of blood to your head can cause headaches, dizziness and nausea. It can also cause swollen optic nerves and visual problems. Plus, there’s also diminished bone density, a decrease in muscle strength and a reduction in heart health to contend with, as floating around requires very little effort. And given that calcium depletion is another potential side effect, astronauts may even develop kidney stones, too.
Space travel also increases an astronaut’s risk of getting cancer – not just while on the ISS, but over the course of their lifetime. And that’s thanks to the increased radiation exposure in space. What’s scary is that this list of ailments is by no means definitive, either. In fact, it was only recently that NASA’s analysis of an astronaut’s blood meant another potential risk factor was added to the list.
In 2019, for instance, NASA researchers were looking into the effects of zero gravity on vision. Conditions involving the eye while on board the ISS can include flattened eyeballs and swollen optic nerves, you see. And so prevalent are sight problems that the space agency began leaving glasses on the station for those who found themselves affected by the issue.
NASA scientists wanted to test the theory that vision problems due to zero gravity had a specific starting point. And, again, that’s the migration of fluid from the legs to the head. As we mentioned earlier, this causes a myriad of small problems, including altered sight as a result of inflamed optic nerves.
As part of NASA’s research, scientists honed in on the jugular vein as the possible origin point for sight issues in zero gravity. This vessel moves blood from the head back to the heart while you’re upright but closes when you’re lying down. Researchers then recruited a total of 11 anonymous astronauts to take part in a study looking specifically at the blood flow through that vein.
Researchers measured the rate of blood flow in the jugulars of the 11 astronauts before they left for the ISS. All had normal readings. While on board, the study participants had to perform their own tests, using an ultrasound. Guided by experts back on Earth, each space traveler relayed their results to the experts. And what they found shocked NASA’s scientists, to say the least – especially as it had nothing to do with vision.
The results showed some very disturbing changes in the blood of several of the astronauts. And one of them was even facing a life-threatening condition. The rest of the team didn’t fare much better, either. Even in the least disturbing of the results, five of the 11 study participants showed little to no forward movement of blood in their jugular veins.
That’s right: in five of the astronauts taking part in the study, their blood actually stopped moving. This, as you can imagine, is pretty rare on Earth. NASA researcher Karina Marshall-Goebel, who worked on the study, explained the results to The Atlantic magazine in 2019. She said, “Sometimes it was sloshing back and forth a bit, but there was no net forward movement.” And the troubling results didn’t end there.
In a shocking turn of events, two of the astronauts actually showed a reversal of blood flow. Yup, it went in the opposite direction through their jugulars. And according to Marshall-Goebel, that situation is, unsurprisingly, “extremely abnormal.” Plus, the scientists believe that redirection may have been caused by a blockage somewhere lower down the vein.
That backward-flowing blood, it seems, does happen on Earth, usually in patients with a mass or tumor in their circulatory systems. The resulting blockage forces the liquid to find another path around the body. And it’s this ability to reroute that scientists believe was causing the reversal of the blood flow’s direction in the astronauts’ bodies.
For one astronaut, though, the weird blood behavior had a single, very serious side-effect. Their ultrasound also revealed a blood clot that required immediate treatment. As Marshall-Goebel told The Atlantic, “We were not expecting this. This has never been reported before.” Having started the study looking at vision, the team had accidentally discovered a whole new set of zero-gravity dangers.
The astronaut was immediately pulled from the study and given clot-busting drugs. Despite these alarming findings, upon returning to Earth, it seems that all the study participants’ blood went back to normal behavior. And Marshall-Goebel confirmed their health in her interview. She said, “None of the crew members actually had any negative clinical outcomes.”
But, as Marshall-Goebel, explained, “I think it was probably scary for everybody.” The scientist was also keen to point out the upside to the alarming findings, however. She said, “I think the fact that we found this now is really, really good news. […] If you know this is a risk factor of space travel, it’s something you can monitor and prevent.”
Obviously, acquiring blood clots while traveling in space is far from ideal. But it may have been happening all along, while astronauts remained blissfully unaware of the danger. And for Marshall-Goebel, the lack of lasting effects just proved the impressive adaptability of the human body. She said, “It’s almost like a detour, when you’re in your car and you sometimes have to go down the wrong street to get where you need to go.”
However, with NASA planning a prolonged manned trip to Mars in the near future, the blood clot discovery highlights how surprising the side effects of travel beyond Earth can be. As space medicine associate professor Virginia Wotring told The Atlantic, “We definitely have enough evidence to consider this to be an important risk to human health in spaceflight that warrants additional research.”
With regard to long-term missions, including that trip to Mars, Wotring said, “I think we need to understand [the blood flow issues] before we embark on long-duration missions where the astronaut would be so far away that we wouldn’t be able to help them in the case of a medical emergency.” But the concern isn’t just for ISS crew members and the like.
Indeed, if companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX turn space travel into a commercial vacation enterprise, how will ordinary citizens cope with the increased risks and inevitable effects of weightlessness? Cornell University geneticist Christopher Mason shared his concerns with The Atlantic, asking, “We take these super-fit astronauts up, and they can adapt and be okay, but what will it look like when we send two random people?”
Mason went on, “Hopefully [those people will] be fine, but we don’t have really any data on it, so it’s hard to tell.” As a result of the blood clot discovery, NASA is planning to implement a blood-monitoring program for all ISS crew members. In addition, it will be installing the aforementioned scanning equipment on the station itself.
According to NASA, “[The ISS] is equipped with appropriate treatments in the medical kit available to crew members.” The space agency’s official site also explains that while there are generally no doctors on board, astronauts are trained in basic first aid. And in a real emergency, there’s always a trip back to Earth. However, on a journey to Mars, that simply won’t be an option.
On board a shuttle to the red planet, astronauts would be afloat in space, out of reach, for three years before arriving on Mars. For Wotring, then, the blood clot discovery has enormous implications. As she told The Atlantic, “There are an awful lot of effects of space on the human body that we’re not aware of yet.”
Despite these known dangers, along with the risks we’ve yet to encounter, many astronauts would travel back to the ISS tomorrow. As Ivins put it to Wired magazine, “It was hard, it was exciting, it was scary, it was indescribable. And yes, I’d go back in a heartbeat.” Clearly, that mission to Mars will have no shortage of volunteers.
As we mentioned, if we keep heading the way we’re going in terms of the development of technology, it may be sooner than we think when we’re able to send normal people to space. In face, SpaceX recently sent a craft to the International Space Station – and the mission looks set to change the future of space travel.
At the beginning of March 2019 Elon Musk’s SpaceX organization sends a capsule rocketing up to space. The Dragon craft, as it is known, is making its way towards the International Space Station. It arrives there swiftly – and the ramifications for the future of space exploration could be gargantuan.
Even before the establishment of SpaceX, Elon Musk had announced himself as a notable entrepreneur. Having already accumulated considerable wealth, in 1999 Musk helped to establish the online bank X.com. And while this may not necessarily ring any bells for anyone today, X.com’s subsequent merger with software business Confinity would ultimately prove to be very significant.
Confinity had been set up during the winter of 1998 by Peter Thiel, Luke Nosek and Max Levchin. And it was in the following year that Confinity’s most well-known product was launched. It was so significant, in fact, that it’s still widely used today – some two decades later. The product in question is PayPal.
Then, in March 2000 Confinity merged with Musk’s X.com. This combined entity initially operated under the X.com moniker, as this was believed to be the more appealing of the two companies’ titles. Market research, however, subsequently suggested that people thought the name related to pornography – and so the business was later renamed PayPal.
Around the time of the merger, Musk was reportedly confident regarding the potential of the business. Even so, he ended up stepping down as CEO in October 2000, with Peter Thiel taking his place. Under Thiel’s leadership, then, the company grew quickly, and in 2002 it opted to offer its shares to the public.
Not long after this, e-commerce giant eBay secured PayPal at a reported cost of $1.5 billion. And even though Musk was no longer the latter company’s CEO, he nonetheless remained its most significant shareholder. So, as a result of the sale, Musk apparently picked up in excess of $160 million.
Following the sale of PayPal, it would have been quite easy for Musk to simply sit back and enjoy his vast wealth. But seemingly not one for putting his feet up, he began to consider new areas of business within which to work. And one of these happened to be space exploration.
During the early 2000s Musk was disheartened to discover that NASA was seemingly making no efforts to send humans to Mars. Moreover, he assumed that this was actually a reflection of the mindset of American people as a whole. Space exploration, it appeared, was no longer a notion of much concern.
In response, Musk devised a plan that came to be known as Mars Oasis. And the idea was that a spacecraft carrying seeds would be sent to the Red Planet. In other words, the mission would see life travel further from Earth than ever before.
The actual experiment detailed in the Mars Oasis plan would have been of significant scientific value. But as Musk saw it, the most important aspect would be the public excitement that it would generate. By sending life to Mars, you see, he thought that people might again focus on space – just as they had done in the 1960s.
So with a goal of capturing the public’s imagination in mind, Musk got to work on the Mars Oasis mission. And in many ways, things initially seemed to be going well. A number of scientific problems were apparently overcome, and a landing craft was envisioned that would be financially viable.
Difficulties emerged, however, when attention shifted to the rocket that would be needed to launch the mission into space. Indeed, it seems that the most inexpensive American rockets still cost around $65 million – which apparently was too much even for Musk. And as a result, the wannabe trailblazer set his sights on Russia.
Thankfully, things looked a little more positive when talks began with the Russians. Musk even managed to track down rockets that would cost in the region of $10 million – considerably less than the American ones. Yet even so, Musk began to suspect that the challenges holding back space travel had less to do with public disinterest and more to do with money.
In a 2013 conversation with Salman Khan of the Khan Academy, Musk explained his shift in thinking. “I thought that there wasn’t enough will [for space exploration], but there actually was plenty of will if people thought there was a way,” he said, according to Vice. “So, then I decided, ‘Okay, well, I need to work on the way.’”
Musk had now decided that the most significant barrier to space exploration was actually the money that it involved. By this line of thinking, then, if there was a way to bring costs down, then space travel could be revolutionized. And so, by the beginning of 2002 Musk was in the midst of realizing a new plan.
First, Musk approached a scientist by the name of Tom Mueller with his idea for a space business. Mueller decided to accept a role under Musk, and so SpaceX was established. The firm was based in the Californian city of El Segundo and initially employed relatively few people.
SpaceX expanded swiftly after its establishment, however, growing to have almost 7,000 employees by late 2017. And as of spring 2018 the company had reportedly already scheduled in excess of 100 launches. To put that in a monetary context, taken together these missions apparently amounted to contracts worth well over $10 billion.
Moreover, in SpaceX’s relatively brief history, it has already passed a number of significant benchmarks. In September 2008, for instance, it became the only private company in history to have sent a rocket powered by liquid fuel into orbit. And by 2017 the company was capable of relaunching spacecraft that had previously been used for other missions.
More recently, however, Musk’s company launched a mission with the potential to change the very nature of space exploration itself. During the morning of March 2, 2019, a rocket was launched from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. And aimed in the direction of the International Space Station, it carried a reusable space capsule known as Dragon 2.
Although the spacecraft didn’t contain any humans, it was nonetheless a test for manned operations in the near future. On this occasion, the vessel was used to carry cargo to the space station. And it also brought with it a test dummy known as Ripley in honor of the Alien franchise.
The mission was conducted in association with NASA and sought to examine the processes via which the spacecraft would dock at the International Space Station. Essentially, the flight was a step towards allowing the U.S. to once again send people into space. And this hasn’t occurred since NASA wound down its shuttle operations in 2011.
In a tweet following the lift-off, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine attempted to express its significance. “Today’s successful launch marks a new chapter in American excellence,” he wrote. “[The launch gets] us closer to once again flying American astronauts on American rockets from American soil.”
And Bridenstine wasn’t the only one to note the importance of the latest mission. “It’s been 17 years to get to this point,” Musk said after the launch, as reported by The Guardian. “[It has taken] an incredible amount of hard work and sacrifice from a lot of people to have gotten to this point.”
But in spite of the jubilation of the moment, Musk also spoke about the mental toll that the mission had taken on him. “To be frank, I’m a little emotionally exhausted,” he said. “That was super stressful, but it worked, so far… We have passed some of the riskiest items.”
After all, just a day after the launch, on March 3, 2019, the Dragon capsule arrived at the International Space Station. And while nobody was aboard the craft on this occasion, the success of the flight suggests that future missions will be manned. What’s more, they may take place sooner rather than later.
Given the success of this mission, SpaceX in fact has plans to send two men to the space station in the summer of 2019. And these lucky individuals are astronauts Robert Behnken and Doug Hurley, both of whom were present for the recent launch of the Dragon craft.
“I can’t begin to explain how exciting it is for a test pilot to be on a first flight of a mission,” Hurley said after the launch, according to The Guardian. And Behnken, too, was struck by its magnitude. “[The Dragon launch was] just one more milestone that gets us ready for our flight,” he explained.
Meanwhile, the Dragon spacecraft remained at the International Space Station for several days, eventually departing on March 8. On this date, the capsule was released and began to drift back in the direction of Earth. And after reentering the planet’s atmosphere, it parachuted its way down into the Atlantic Ocean and was soon retrieved.
Following the Dragon’s recovery, it was taken to dry land and examined. And overall, the mission was deemed a success, with the plans to send Hurley and Behnken into space looking feasible. Their mission has been scheduled for July 25, 2019, in fact, and is set to last for two weeks.
It’s perhaps fair to say that on the surface, these missions do not appear to be especially groundbreaking. Russian Yuri Gagarin made humankind’s first trip into orbit back in 1961, after all. However, the SpaceX launches are expected to be the beginning of something much bigger.
In 2017 Musk expressed his intention to construct spacecraft capable of traveling to Mars. Speaking at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, he detailed the notion of no less than two unmanned vessels reaching the Red Planet by the end of 2022. And the trailblazer hopes to see humans traveling there in 2024.
“I feel fairly confident that we can complete the ship and be ready for a launch in about five years,” Musk told the congress, according to Business Insider. “That’s our goal… to try to make the 2022 Mars rendezvous. The Earth-Mars synchronization happens roughly every two years. So, every two years, there’s an opportunity to fly to Mars.”
In essence, these first few Mars missions are intended to lay the groundwork for future manned flights. SpaceX hopes, first of all, to locate a water source and then create the infrastructure necessary to survive there. After that, construction could begin on what Musk terms as a “city” on the planet.
Speaking to the audience at the 2017 International Astronautical Congress, Musk explained that the plan is to “build up the base [on Mars], starting with one ship, then multiple ships, then start building up the city, then making the city bigger – and even bigger.” Plus, he added, “Over time, [we’ll start] terraforming Mars and making it really a nice place to be.”
Reaching planets beyond Earth has long been a goal of Musk’s. Indeed, the entrepreneur views it as ultimately being vital to the survival of the human race. Even if our species were to overcome the immediate problems that it faces today, Earth will nonetheless one day become uninhabitable. And so, as Musk sees it, humankind must look to other planets – and now is the time to act.
“It’s the first time in 4.5 billion years that we are at a level of technology where we have the ability to reach Mars,” Musk suggested at the SXSW festival in 2013, according to Vice. “I will go if I can be assured that SpaceX would go on without me. I’ve said I want to die on Mars – just not on impact.”
So, Musk is apparently set on the notion of interplanetary travel and its necessity for humankind. And if we are to take him at his word, he seems dedicated to the idea of personally reaching Mars, too. In fact, he even appears to welcome the possibility of seeing out the end of his days there.
“I think fundamentally the future is vastly more exciting and interesting if we’re a space-faring civilization and a multi-planet species than if we’re not,” Musk stated at the 2017 International Astronautical Congress. “You want to be inspired by things. You want to wake up in the morning and think, ‘The future’s going to be great.’”
“That’s what being a space-faring civilization is all about,” Musk continued. “It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.”
There’s still a long way to go before Musk’s dreams become reality, of course. But the possibilities of interplanetary travel and the colonization of Mars are no longer just the stuff of science fiction. And perhaps people will one day look back on the 2019 launch of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft as yet another giant leap for mankind.