Brain Damage from Space

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Last month, a study of five male cosmonauts raised serious concerns about the safety of long-term space travel. Published in JAMA Neurology by researchers in Europe, it found that within three weeks after returning from the ISS, the subjects’ had higher average levels of some proteins in their blood that are often associated with brain damage. Although the findings need to be studied further, they are the first concrete evidence of brain cell damage in blood tests after spaceflight.

This adds to the growing body of research published in the last several years suggesting that stays longer than a few months in space affect the human brain, causing issues like vision problems and swollen optic nerves. A typical trip to the ISS lasts about six months, but as missions migrate from low Earth orbit to deep-space exploration near the Moon and Mars, the length of time astronauts spend away from Earth will increase, and so may the risks.

The most apparent difference between life on Earth and life in space is the absence of gravity. In any orbit, astronauts experience weightlessness, which looks like fun for a few minutes on video, but takes a toll on the human body after several months in reality. The observed effects include bone density loss, muscle degradation, and an increased risk of kidney stones due to dehydration and calcium excretion from the bones.

Moreover, with no gravity to hold them down, bodily fluids wander up toward the head, putting pressure on the eyes and potentially causing vision problems. In addition to exercising, eating a healthy diet and monitoring their bodies, astronauts implement several countermeasures to protect themselves. Compression cuffs, for example, are worn around the thighs to help keep blood in the lower extremities.

As a long-term plan though, small fixes like these may never be enough to make space a comfortable habitat for humanity. We are a 1-G species; an ideal solution would make space adapt to us and not the other way around.

More radical thinkers have tried to do just that for decades. In 1974, Princeton physicist Gerard K. O’Neill designed what came to be called an O’Neill cylinder. The idea is simple. By building a pair of cylinders in space, each one 20 miles long and five miles in diameter, then spinning them fast enough to pull its human inhabitants toward the edges, we could create a space colony with artificial gravity. If it worked, it would operate the same way a centrifuge does on Earth, and theoretically, something like it is possible. But our current technology is nowhere near advanced enough to consider building one soon.

A simpler option is to build a short-arm centrifuge inside one part of a spacecraft. Although easier, the payoff would be small, since the radius of spin is very short and humans inside are likely to feel nauseous or lose consciousness. Sleeping inside one would be impossible, and you wouldn’t be able to do much while awake, which means it could be used intermittently at most.

More complicated designs rotate an entire part of the spacecraft, or rotate the spacecraft itself, like an O’Neill Cylinder, and these are more likely to remedy the health effects of microgravity. Still, they are daunting feats of engineering.

Without artificial gravity, exercise can be effective in combatting some effects of spaceflight, but the results vary highly between individuals. For a Mars mission, the large exercise machines would be difficult to transport, and they would need to be durable, since quick resupply missions are out of the question. Even still, exercise doesn’t address many health effects linked to microgravity such as fluid buildup.

ESA’s Space Medicine Team told us, “All in all, there is still some way to go before we have both the understanding and the technology (medical / life support) to attempt a Mars-like (2-3 year) mission with an acceptable level of risk to our astronauts.”

There may be a glimpse of the future, however, in Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft. In March, NASA announced it was collaborating with Bezos’s company to install an artificial gravity testing capability on the ship. The reaction control system will rotate the capsule 11 times per minute for more than two minutes during its first test, simulating gravity equal to that on the Moon, or about one-sixth that on Earth. The capability is projected to be available late next year.

More ambitious is Orbital Assembly Corporation’s plan to begin building a luxury space hotel with artificial gravity by 2026. The Voyager Space Station, a ring 700 feet in diameter, would orbit Earth, offering its 400 inhabitants amenities from spacewalks and low-G basketball to fine dining and shows with Beyonce. The catch? The entire project will cost tens of billions at the low end, and it’s gravity would only simulate that of the Moon.

Until then, spinning space colonies remain a thing of science fiction. What we do know is that the visionary to create feasible artificial gravity first will not only make space safer, but revolutionize the way we explore our universe.

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