In a recent article in the New York Times, US Navy fighter pilots reported unidentified flying objects off the east coast. They even captured them on video. It’s fascinating to contemplate whether these reported UFOs were an advanced alien species from across the galaxy coming to check in on us.
For decades, science fiction writers have imagined visitors from light years away. We love dreaming up stories about alien technology, civilization, and intentions because we love to ponder what this vast universe might contain. After all, despite reaching the moon and landing rovers on Mars, we’ve explored just a tiny part of it.
We should give ourselves some credit, though. Space is an extremely harsh environment. NASA and private space companies are both gearing up for missions that will take us deeper into space and for longer periods of time, and we can only comprehend how amazing that is if we understand the unique challenges of life in space.
Microgravity can be a lot of fun. Think of the videos you’ve seen from the International Space Station of astronauts floating around, doing backflips, or conducting cool experiments. It looks like a blast, and some even pay big bucks to experience simulated microgravity on special planes that fly in parabolic patterns.
But this picture of microgravity is a short-term one. Over long periods of time, it can lead to something known as Space Adaptation Syndrome (SAS), also known as space sickness. Symptoms include nausea, dizziness, disorientation, and headaches. As one Apollo astronaut put it:
“The first night in space when I was drifting off to sleep, I suddenly realized that I had lost track of my arms and legs. For all my mind could tell, my limbs were not there.”
That’s just the beginning, though. Astronauts also risk losing bone and muscle mass, having the natural flow of bodily liquids interrupted, and experiencing cardiovascular problems.
But scientists aren’t giving up on finding ways to cope in microgravity. Those special planes flying in parabolic patterns? Astronauts train on them to get them used to microgravity. While aboard the International Space Station, they exercise daily on special machines to prevent bone and muscle mass loss. And studies of astronauts like Scott Kelly are helping scientists get a more complete picture of what happens to our bodies in microgravity so they can develop additional preventative measures.
When you hear about radiation, you probably think about medical treatments, nuclear weapons, or maybe Bruce Banner. Put simply, radiation is energy transmitted in the form of a wave or particle. It includes everything from radio waves to visible light to gamma radiation. And contrary to what some may think, not every encounter with it will harm us (or give us super powers).
In space, radiation is more serious. Space radiation is coming from the sun, and cosmic rays from deep space are flying around out there. Thankfully, Earth’s magnetic field largely protects those of us on solid ground. On an extended space voyage, though, we’d need to come up with ways to deal with it because it poses serious health risks.
“Beyond Low Earth Orbit, space radiation may place astronauts at significant risk for radiation sickness, and increased lifetime risk for cancer, central nervous system effects, and degenerative diseases,” NASA wrote. That same space radiation will eventually tear apart Elon Musk’s car, which SpaceX launched into space last year, experts say.
This is another topic scientists are hard at work studying, including the ones who work at the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory. They’re investigating how radiation affects us and how to protect future space travelers on extended voyages.
Remember that road trip you took with your family? The one where you and your siblings had to share the back row of seats? No matter how well-behaved you strived to be during your time squeezed into the car together, it seemed like it was almost inevitable that you all would end up getting on each other’s nerves.
The lack of privacy and personal space, along with mild feelings of claustrophobia, made trips like those a psychological challenge. Now imagine similar conditions, except it’s not a four-hour trip—it’s four months. And there’s no stepping outside to stretch your legs because there’s no air out there. These are the challenges space travelers will encounter.
In the 1980s, a Chinese astronaut on the shuttle Challenger became distressed when his experiment failed, and for a moment, he threatened to not return to Earth. In 1976, the Soviet Soyuz 21 mission was halted after crew members reported smelling a strong odor, the source of which was never found, leaving scientists to propose a case of shared delusion.
Out of the three challenges we’ve touched on, astronauts’ mental health has probably been studied the least, but it could pose just as much of a risk to the success of future missions.
Why even try?
As we press on in exploring the universe, some may see the obstacle before us and ask, Why even try human space voyages? This question does not make you a pessimist. It actually puts you in the majority. And it’s why we send unmanned probes into space more than we send humans.
However, don’t count us humans out just yet. Just like we took risks in sending humans to the moon, some believe it’s worth taking those same risks to set foot on another planets—say, Mars—for the first time in our history.
It’s not just for bragging rights, either. Scientists remind us that our home planet, our solar system, and even our own Milky Way Galaxy won’t always be a habitable. It might be very far into the distant future, but there will come a time when our species will need to become interplanetary—even interstellar.
In the meantime, we’ll continue to study what living in space does to our bodies and search out innovative ways to make it feel more like home.