What happens to the human body in space

  • Space is a dangerous and unfriendly place not suited for human life, yet astronauts are sent up to the International Space Station every year.
  • From exposure to high levels of radiation to surviving in micro-gravity conditions, space can be a tough place to live.
  • Without gravity working on your body, your bones and muscles start to break down. Bone density drops by over 1% per month.
  • On Earth, gravity compresses our spinal cords. But in space, the microgravity environment stretches the spine and astronauts can get a couple inches taller.
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Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: In 2016, astronaut Scott Kelly returned to Earth after nearly a year on the International Space Station. But when he came back, he was 2 inches taller. So, what exactly happened up there, and what does that mean for the future of space travel?

Narrator: If you're planning a trip to the International Space Station, be prepared to feel weightless. The station orbits the planet every 90 minutes, moving at more than 17,000 miles per hour. That's 30 times faster than a commercial jet aircraft. As a result, astronauts on board live in a constant state of free fall, or weightlessness.

Garrett Reisman: Being up there in microgravity is awesome. It's, like, the coolest thing, because it's like you have the power to fly.

Narrator: That's Garrett Reisman, a former NASA astronaut who's logged 107 days in space. There are a few immediate side effects, he says, when you first experience microgravity.

Reisman: So the first thing you really feel is you feel kinda sick. You don't feel very good those first couple days. It's kinda like being airsick or seasick. We call it space-adaptation sickness. Your vestibular system, your organs that provide information to the brain about your rotation and your acceleration, they're not working that great without being in gravity.

Narrator: Without gravity working on your body, your bones and muscles start to break down, too. In fact, bone density drops by over 1% per month. By comparison, the rate of bone loss for elderly men and women is around 1% to 1.5% per year. And, because it doesn't take much effort to float through space, your muscles lose strength and endurance pretty quickly.

Reisman: You have to work out every day. So, they scheduled two hours a day pretty much every day while I was on the space station for working out. What we found was, if you do enough resistive exercise, you can halt the effects of the bone loss and the muscle atrophy.

Narrator: Without gravity pulling them down, fluids pool in the body, tricking it into thinking it's carrying too much water. As a result, astronauts have to pee... a lot. This makes it easy for them to get dehydrated and develop kidney stones.

Reisman: So, you have a shift in your fluid. A lot of the blood volume that normally is down in your legs ends up up here, and your chest kinda puffs up and your face puffs up, and you can see it. If you look at pictures of us on the space station, it looks like we put on some weight or something and we're all puffed up.

Narrator: Swelling in the upper body puts pressure on the eyes as well, which can cause vision problems.

Reisman: A lot of us, including myself, had a shift in our vision while we're up in space. You start out, everything was fine, and all of a sudden things get blurry. We could see the effects of it. We could see swelling in the optic nerve, we could see folds in the cornea, but we're still not 100% sure exactly what's causing it and how to stop it.

Narrator: With all the challenges of space travel, one benefit is you actually get taller.

Reisman: So, yes, you do get taller when you go to space. It's the whole reason I signed up for this job. Your spine is being compressed by gravity. So, when you go into the microgravity environment and you no longer have any kind of compressive loads on the spine at all, it stretches. I grew about an inch.

Astronaut: Woo-hoo!

Narrator: Without gravity working against it, the heart doesn't have to work as hard to pump blood throughout the body. Over time, this could lead to the heart actually decreasing in size.

Reisman: There is an effect on the cardiovascular system about being up in space. So you do get a reduced aerobic capability. You can be in great shape, and after being up in space for a couple days, you might get on the treadmill, and you might be like, "Man, I must not have been hitting the gym."

Narrator: The immune system also takes a hit. Researchers discovered that a lack of gravity weakens the functions of T cells, which play a crucial role in fighting off diseases.

Narrator: Another concern is cosmic radiation. Astronauts on the station are exposed to over 10 times the amount of radiation that we get on Earth.

Reisman: At a couple hundred miles, we're well above the atmosphere, but we're still well below the magnetic field of the Earth. But we still get a large bit of protection from that magnetic field. In fact, you could tell, because when you close your eyes, you see little lightning bolts, and that's actually a result of some of the radiation hitting your eyeballs and releasing photons.

Narrator: Artificial shielding on the ISS only partially protects astronauts from harsh radiation, leaving them more susceptible to cancer and other diseases later in life.

Narrator: Finally, astronauts must also be able to handle the psychological challenges of confinement and isolation.

Reisman: So, there is a psychological aspect to being in space, both because of the fact that you're isolated from the rest of humanity, it was really strange to be looking out the window at billions of people down there that had no way to get to me. When I was there, I only had two crewmates at a time on the space station, so if you don't get along with somebody, that could be bad, because you don't have too many choices there in making new friends.

Narrator: And, without a 24-hour sleep cycle, astronaut circadian rhythm is thrown off, which can cause more stress and lead to sleep disorders.

Reisman: You're taking jet lag to a whole nother extreme. Well, the weird thing is that you go around the planet once every hour and a half. So every 45 minutes, the sun is either rising or setting. So you can't, like, tell what time it is by looking out the window.

Narrator: So, what does all this mean for the future of space travel? Well, a trip to Mars would expose astronauts to even more dangers than those on the International Space Station. They would face higher levels of radiation, shifting gravity fields, and longer travel times, which would compound all of the negative effects of space on the human body and mind.

Reisman: I think the biggest issue we gotta deal with is the radiation. We don't know precisely what that exact radiation does to human beings. But what does gamma rays or what does heavy ions, what do they do human tissue? We don't really know.

Narrator: Right now, NASA and other research organizations are working to develop better technology that protects astronauts against these hazards, so maybe one day humans might make it to Mars.

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