We've known since the initial Apollo missions that travelling through space does strange things to the human body, but the initial results from a study of Commander Hadfield during his time aboard the ISS suggest these detrimental effects might be much worse than we had thought.
The results of the study, conducted by a University of Waterloo team led by Richard Hughson, are set to be announced at a scientific conference in Waterloo next Tuesday and reportedly illustrate a number of serious health issues that will confront long-term space voyagers. The most serious of which is a condition that mimics type-2 diabetes.
During Hadfield's five months aboard the ISS, he and four other members of his crew exhibited both elevated levels of insulin and other diabetes-related blood factors, though none of them actually showed symptoms of being diabetic. Hughson believes that the extreme sedentary nature of the astronaut's life in space — without even gravity to force one into maintaining posture — is a primary factor in the emergence of these blood factors. "They [astronauts] are the most sedentary working population that you can find," Professor Hughson told the Globe and Mail.
And that's not the only danger facing long-term astronauts. As Scott Smith, manager for nutritional biochemistry at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, explains, "In a month of spaceflight you see about the same change in bone that you see in a year in a postmenopausal woman. It's like doing time-lapse photography." There's also the danger of going space blind, as Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk did in 2009, due to uncontrollable swelling of his optic nerves.
Together, these physiological symptoms — bone loss, reduced mental capacity, and farsightedness — all closely resemble what our elderly suffer here on Earth. This could eventually lead to better treatments for these diseases and a more robust understanding of the human ageing process in general. And hopefully there's also a solution that will let us keep our astronauts safe in orbit too. [Globe and Mail]