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Human Frailty May Keep NASA from Meeting the Little Green Men

October 16, 2017

No one is certain whether little green men really live on Mars. But if they do, human frailty may keep us from ever meeting them. We have the technology to put men and women on Mars, but with NASA’s current health and spacesuit technology, they probably wouldn't survive the trip. Why?
Have you ever noticed that when astronauts return to the earth after six months on the space station, they disappear for several months following the smiling publicity shots? That’s because their bodies take a while – sometimes a long while – to adjust to the normality of earth. Most astronauts exercise several hours a day on their missions to counteract the harmful effects of living in space, but it still takes months of rehabilitation to adjust to living on earth after a typical six-month space mission. 
Some of the ill-effects space travelers experience include up to a 22% loss in blood volume in two to three days; muscles in the legs, neck, and back losing as much as 20% of their mass; and bones atrophy between 1% and 2% per month in space. Some astronauts have been documented as experiencing as much as 20% loss of bone mass on six-month flights.
Even a few days in space can cause health problems. After spending just two weeks in space in 2006, Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper collapsed during a press conference after landing, because her body had not adjusted to the gravitational and magnetic field of the earth.
"We normally say that it takes a day of recovery on Earth for each day that somebody's in space," explains Dr. Victor Schneider, research medical officer for NASA headquarters. Some adverse effects may never be reversed.
Let’s look at the three primary problems that NASA must address before humans can safely undertake an extended mission of three years (such as a meet and greet with the little green men of Mars). 
  • Blood. Blood volume and circulation suffer. The heart itself shrinks in size. After all, it is mainly a muscle. "If you have less blood volume, then your heart doesn't need to pump as hard. It's going to atrophy," says NASA’s Dr. Schneider. A NASA study also revealed blood vessel-stiffening in space travelers – a key risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Space also affects the body’s ability to utilize oxygen and can impair the body’s ability to maintain proper blood pressure. 
  • Muscle. Muscle atrophy is a serious problem, particularly once the space explorer returns to earth. “The atrophy of muscles in space can affect not only the performance of astronauts during missions, but it can lead to severe muscle injuries upon return to Earth,” according to NASA literature. Atrophy is the process in which muscles weaken, deteriorate, and shrink. Studies have shown that up to 20% muscle loss can occur even in short spaceflights of five to eleven days. Long-term, NASA estimates that muscle size and function can deteriorate 20% to 40% without countermeasures. 
  • Bone. Astronauts in flight for weeks or months can experience serious bone issues. The calcium in their bones is lost through urination. As the bones get weaker they can break in even a minor fall - just as if they had osteoporosis. Computer models indicate that as much as 40 to 60% loss of bone mass could occur on extended missions.
In addition to the three main health dangers of health flight, other possible risks exist. Some astronauts have returned to earth with “diabetes-like symptoms.” Fortunately, so far these have dissipated in a short time. Many have experienced vision problems caused by increased intraocular pressure, some of which could cause partial or full blindness. And rats studied in a 2016 flight of two weeks duration developed early signs of liver disease. So NASA has much work to do to protect the health of the pioneers who will eventually venture out on longer and longer missions.
Most non-scientists assume that these adverse health effects are due to the lack of contact with the earth’s gravitational field. That is partly true. But another critical factor that is missing from the lives of space explorers is the lack of contact with the earth’s magnetic field. According to one doctor, “Space program managers are keenly aware that it is not just a lack of gravity that has a negative impact on astronauts' bodies, but the lack of the earth's magnetic field.”
The 2015 “Review of NASA's Evidence Reports on Human Health Risks” was released by National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. Its recommendations include that NASA should:
  • Study the way different risks affect each other - such as the impact food and nutrition have on physical and mental health and performance;
  • Stress the differences between spacewalks outside the ISS versus work outside vehicles on planets, where environments could be totally different;
  • Consider a broader array of spacesuit designs - the current reports discuss only one;
  • Begin tailoring more research to individuals and account for the differences between individuals.
NASA has tried various methods of treating the health problems of space travel, including osteoporosis drugs for bone loss and intense exercise to combat muscle atrophy. It has also been working on new spacesuits that may reduce the risk of injury or illness.
Fortunately, NASA has learned about a technology that provides an electromagnetic field safely and has partnered with the European company that pioneered the technology. Together they plan to engineer the next generation of spacesuits. The technology can increase blood flow and oxygenation of the body’s cells. The hope is that it will eliminate or mitigate many of the problems described in this article, and hasten the recovery time of the brave astronauts who risk their lives to advance scientific knowledge.
CNBC: The Health Risks of Spending a Year in Outer Space
Space.com: Weightlessness and its Effect on Astronauts
NASA: Gravity Hurts (So Good)
NASA Fact Sheet on Muscle Atrophy in Space
NASA Fact Sheet on Bone Atrophy in Space
NASA: Cardiovascular Health Consequences of Long-Duration Space Flight
What Are the Long-Term Effects of Living in Space?
NASA is Studying Twins Mark & Scott Kelly to Find Out.

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Dr. Tom Barrett is a pastor, teacher, author, conference keynote speaker, professor, certified executive coach, and marketplace minister. His teaching and coaching have blessed both church and business leaders. He has been ordained for over 40 years, and has pastored in seven churches over that time. Today he “pastors pastors” as he oversees ordained and licensed ministers in Florida for his ministerial fellowship.

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