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Medically Significant Aspects of Space Flight

Weightlessness

Of all the medically significant conditions experienced in space flight, weightlessness has the most drastic effects; moreover, it will be impossible to eliminate this aspect of space travel unless large space stations can be constructed that produce artificial gravity, as by rotating. Because life evolved under the constant influence of gravity, the effects of weightlessness even on the cellular level have been a concern. It was at first feared that a human being in space might lose all coordination and become completely incapacitated. While the human body does appear to adjust fairly quickly in a state of weightlessness, associated problems do occur, often causing difficulties only upon return to earth. Problems include space adaptation syndrome (nausea, motion sickness, and sensory disorientation during the first few days), weakened immune defenses, loss of bone mass, loss of muscle mass (including loss of heart muscle), and space anemia, which results as the number of red cells decreases. Russian astronauts undergo strenuous exercise routines twice daily to try and maintain bone and large muscle mass. Nevertheless, some have had to be carried on stretchers when they first return to earth.

Inertial Forces

Inertial forces due to acceleration are experienced only during liftoff and reentry, but the consequences can be traumatic. The circulatory system is most strongly affected; deprivation of blood to the brain causes dimming of vision and sometimes loss of consciousness. However, lying on a body-contoured couch, astronauts have survived inertial forces eight times stronger than normal gravity.

Ionizing Radiation

In space the astronauts are exposed to ionizing radiation from particles trapped in the earth's magnetic field, from solar flares, and from the onboard nuclear reactors that help power the spacecraft. This radiation can produce deleterious effects, ranging from nausea and lowered blood count to genetic mutations and leukemia. Protective shielding, shielding chemicals, and careful monitoring of the doses of radiation received by each astronaut have been used to reduce radiation exposure to acceptable levels.

Absence of Day and Night

The absence of the earthly cycle of day and night during space travel produces subtle effects, both physiological and psychological. The period from sunrise to sunset in a quickly orbiting spacecraft may be as little as 11-2 hours long. All body rhythms, such as heartbeat, respiration, and changes in body temperature, are regulated by biological clocks (see biorhythm). These rhythms are related to human patterns of sleep and wakefulness, which in turn are based on the alternation of day and night. On most flights, adherence to "home" schedules maintains normal human cycles.

A Closed Environment

In the closed environment of the spacecraft care must be taken to prevent the buildup of toxic material to dangerous levels; this is accomplished by recycling waste material. The nature of the artificial atmosphere astronauts breathe is an important biomedical consideration. Ideally, this atmosphere would be identical in composition and pressure to the earth's atmosphere. Any alteration involves the risk of decompression sickness. The space shuttle used a pure oxygen atmosphere or a mixture of oxygen and nitrogen.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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