Are Humans Fit for Space? A ‘Herculean’ Study Says Maybe Not

from Wired

Here’s how you test your intracranial pressure in space. First, you collect baseline samples of your blood, saliva, and urine, and take ultrasound images of the vessels in your heart, neck, head, and eyes, lining up the scanning device on black dots tattooed on your body before you left Earth.

Then, you clamber into the Chibis, Russian for “lapwing,” a pair of hard, corrugated-rubber pants whose waist can be sealed. The pants suck: A vacuum imitates how gravity on Earth pulls blood, mucus, the water in cells, and cerebral and lymphatic fluids from our skulls to the bottom half of the body.

In space, fluids won’t drain, and astronauts develop red, puffy faces and complain of congestion or pressure in their ears. There are worse effects, too: 40 percent of the astronauts who lived on the International Space Station suffered some sort of damage to their eyes, including optic disc edema, globe flattening, and folds in the choroid, the blood-filled layer between the retina and the white sclera. NASA posits intracranial pressure is a possible explanation for what it calls “spaceflight-associated neuro-ocular syndrome,” and devised the test to measure fluid shifts to astronauts’ heads and eyes.

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14 Responses to Are Humans Fit for Space? A ‘Herculean’ Study Says Maybe Not

  1. Mikaela Battaglia December 2, 2019 at 10:24 pm #

    This article was absolutely fascinating and brought many things to light about space travel. While many who are not familiar with scientific biological terms may have a little trouble reading it, if you have basic knowledge of biology you will be fine. One of the things that really stuck out to me was towards the end of the article where it suggested the ability to remove, edit, or add genomes into the humans to make them more adaptable to space travel, based on the effects Scott had on his body, and others who have traveled to space for longer than six months have too. However, this could be a huge ethics issue, because the ability to edit, add, and delete genomes is really only available to a fertilized egg, before the baby is even born yet. The question of “designer babies” has been argued about for decades now, because scientists have found ways to alter genes to create children with desirable traits. It is not ethical to birth and raise a child solely for the reason of space travel, because they will have constant testing on them throughout their childhood and life, and they will essentially be forced to travel to space to test and see if the alterations worked. While that seems like the simplest and most straight-forward option, it will never be possible. Therefore, scientists will have to find other ways to test the effects.
    Besides that, I think this article poses many incredible discoveries that will be very influential in the world of astronauts and space travel. By studying twins, they were able to compare and contrast the two in the most accurate way possible, since they both were made up of the same genome. The effects that were found on the body will now allow researchers to be able to predict how these effects will influence other astronauts, and potentially the detrimental effects of traveling to Mars. Although space travel to Mars is not going to happen anytime soon, these findings are paramount in the ability to tell what will happen to the human body for extended periods of time outside of the atmosphere. I cannot wait to see what happens in the future of space travel!

  2. Corinne Roonan December 3, 2019 at 3:14 pm #

    Clearly, humans are not fit for space. Do you know how I know that? I know that because humans live on earth, in an atmosphere where we can breathe and exist without having drainage issues. While space travel is valuable to human society (apparently it is not just a competition between countries about who can get the furthest), is it valuable enough to change the genetics of babies in order to send them to space? Mikaela talks about this above and I can not help but comment on that exact topic. Sure, genetic modification exists in the world, in the foods we eat. Should we really genetically modify children, though? What happens when a child is genetically modified before they are born and does not want to go into space? There is a waste of a ton of money.
    It seems really like a no-brainer to me. People have been going into space for years and while they have dealt with health implications, so do many people in other careers. Does that mean all children should be genetically modified for certain careers chosen by their parents? No! Absolutely not!
    As it exists, though, there is a need for scientific study before putting people into these types of situations. There needs to be study into the way space affects astronauts. With that study, though, needs to be study into more protective measures against the issues astronauts have in space. If scientists have the ability to change the genetics of a human being, I have no doubt that they have a way to change the affects on astronauts in space.

  3. Stephen Hoffman December 3, 2019 at 6:39 pm #

    The topic of space exploration is typically viewed with the greatest sense of wonder and discovery, especially in the United States. While the United States enjoys to lay claims that we were victorious in the Space Race, and we are the leaders in the field of astronomy and space exploration, that narrative has proven to be untrue. Although the Soviets were in space before the Americans, there has been recent discussion to increase the space programs in America to gain a stronger understanding of the great unknown that is outer space. Ideas have even been floated about a potential colonization of Mars or other colonies in outer space (for if the Earth ever becomes uninhabitable). This is approached with child-like imagination for those involved. Elon Musk is on the forefront of this dialogue, as the CEO of SpaceX and seemingly the leader of space technology in the world, and he has furthered this fascination with space. There is much that humans are unaware of, and a greater space program could help to gain an understanding of what else is out there. Everyone is curious about the prospects of alien existence, and many are willing to go to endless lengths to find out the truth (the prospect of storming Area 51 are still on the table).

    While these ideas are incredibly popular around the country, this article and the scientific research of the effects space has on the body brings us down to Earth (no pun intended). The examples presented in this article are concerning to say the least for the space optimists, as there are clear biological effects on human bodies from spending too much time in space. This should not be coming as a surprise to scientists, as the difference in pressure systems, food and nutrient intake is radically different, and the environment itself is polarly opposed to anything present on Earth. The statistics on radiation on Mars is even more concerning. This likely sets back the mission to get a man on mars back many years. While these are deafening factors about the dangers of exploration, the article makes an interesting point, arguing that while the exploration is fascinating, the money these programs cost is astounding. Billions are spent on the space programs, and with the new scientific discoveries concerning radiation and medical effects, more money must be spent to first to address the issue of capital.

  4. Tyler Abline December 5, 2019 at 1:01 pm #

    Many call space the final frontier. I like to think of space as the next frontier. Throughout human history we have pushed the limits of travel and exploration to the limits. Columbus and Magellan faced massive issues on their sea faring exploration. Lewis and Clark faced massive issues with their expedition across the American frontier. And today astronauts are facing massive issues with space exploration. Space exploration is relatively new in the grand scheme of things, and with how grand the frontier is we were bound to run into issues. Most new exploration fields are at first met with massive issues, so it was to be expected that space would be no different. With the advancements of technology and research I am sure that we will be able to mitigate the health issues that space currently presents just like humans have done throughout history. While it is unfortunate to see that space is presenting us health problems studies like the ones outlined on the twins in the article serve as tools for us to identify and fix health problems posed by space exploration. It may take some time, but humans will find a way to make space travel safe and viable just like they have done with many other exploration frontiers they have been presented with.

  5. Daniel J Cambronero December 6, 2019 at 12:30 pm #

    And I thought everybody in space could run around in long-sleeved T-shirts like they do on Star Trek.

    Actually, the science of pressure suits, and the developmental drawbacks of long term space travel, are familiar subjects. Men working to build the Brooklyn Bridge got the bends by working in air-pressurized caissons in the East River. Men get black lung working in coal mines too. The dangers of space travel are well known, but we will still do it, just as we built bridges and dug mines. Because we can make these places safer, and we can adapt, as the story itself shows.

    Space is a new frontier, and a really challenging one. But identifying these problems is more than half the battle, I think.

  6. Tiffany Lyn December 6, 2019 at 8:56 pm #

    This article discusses how the human body suffers/deteriorates from traveling to space. Space exploration is ridiculously expensive. Finding healthy, capable candidates who can pass physical exams and preparations is difficult. It’s confusing to me why NASA even sends people to space anymore. They have satellites and rovers that can safely gain information. Sending people to the final frontier is unethical. We have endless amounts of data that prove humans cannot withstand space’s atmosphere. Fluids transfer vertically within the body; eye damage is inevitable and significant amounts of bone density and muscle are lost. I know very little about biology/anatomy, but I do know eye damage and loss of bone density is irreversible. You cannot strengthen/repair eye muscles or regain bone density. Space travelers are in great shape, have healthy minds and undergo many physical and mental tests. When they come back from space their bodies are ruined. A 30 something year old healthy person will come back with the health of a 60-year-old. Billions of dollars are spent on space exploration and many people think it’s not worth the investment. It’s important to keep broadening our knowledge through exploration but it’d be better to explore the ocean or invest in environmental sustainability. Only 5% of our oceans have been explored meaning 95% of our oceans remain a mystery. Space exploration is unsafe for humans and we shouldn’t knowingly put people at risk.

  7. Eli Garay January 24, 2020 at 7:59 pm #

    Humans are not fit for space at all. Not only does the study of Mark and Scott Kelly acknowledge the negative effects of long-term space travel on humans, but the idea that humans are unfit for space is something that could just be assumed. Over the course of human history, humanity has evolved. Through human evolutions, our bodies have adapted to the changes encountered by our ancestors that we may very well handle with ease now. Our ancestors were able to evolve into what we consider to be your conventional human now because the obstacles they encounter during the evolutionary process, were obstacles they would commonly encounter. Not every human is going to space. Throughout the year, there is only around a handful of trained astronauts or cosmonauts orbiting the Earth on the ISS. A handful of people experiencing an obstacle such as space travel for a relatively short amount of time if we consider the timeline of human evolution, it is nearly impossible for future generations to evolve for space travel in such a short amount of time. Just because humans are not fit for space, however, does not mean that humans are not going to be in space. Space travel is something that the world is taking much more seriously now that we are beginning to really see the effects of climate change and the loss of limited resources we choose to use rather than renewable and clean sources. Companies like SpaceX are beginning to take it on themselves to try and find ways for humanity to expand off this planet, as while this may be our home, we have run it into the ground. If not only companies like SpaceX, but governments were willing to invest more into space programs, there would be a significant amount of funding to help government organizations like NASA research and solve solutions to the effects of the human body so that humanity could venture off into space and populate more planets. While it may be an investment in which the payoff may not come for many years, it is far certainly a much better option than choosing to contribute more and more to climate change and effectively kill the only species that we definitively know to be a form of intelligent life. The article does prove it’s case that yes, humans are definitely in no condition to tackle long term space travel, but nonetheless it is something we must begin to invest in regardless.

  8. Connor Kupres January 24, 2020 at 8:59 pm #

    This article shows how far we have come in the world of space travel but also how much farther the bar needs to be pushed. With astronauts experiencing such pressures in their eyes and head, leading to permanent eye damage. The recent push towards a human journey to mars needs to be rethought. While the idea of long-term space flight might seem fun, like they said in the article it is dangerous and we have much to do before we are ready (Chin). The recent space missions have been a few months at longest 6 months, with over 500 doing this are well documented. If you don’t exercise regularly and at a high intensity the muscle deterioration could be more than one could handle. To the point where even the bone could be compromised. “The longest mission ever was only a year and a trip to mars could be as long a three years,”(Chin) this tells us that affects from space diet are even unknown. If the nutrition available to astronauts is remotely dense enough to support a human being for that much time in space. Because what goes into space the goal is to bring it back this would mean close to if not more than 6 years in a weightless environment. Even the air astronaut’s breath can affect them, the air pumped is slightly heavy with CO2 meaning affects on mood is common. If one is breathing the air for as long as 6 years, the phycological affects can be underestimated. With all of this information going against a trip to mars it almost seems as if we don’t need to build the spaceship rather, we need to make sure that the human will survive the journey. The reason this data is available is due to two brothers’ twins Scott and Mark, who both grew up to be astronauts. They conducted a comprehensive study on the effects of space on the human body. The worst of the results was from the genes of the brother, Scott, who stayed in space for the extended period of time. Scott’s DNA was altered and never fully returned to normal this is believed to be in part from the space radiation he was exposed to over that amount of time. This study reveals information that NASA never had access and even while it is extremely helpful it is only the reactions one man recorded in long term living in space. The human body is extremely complicated and it is extremely unrealistic to believe this is what would happen to all humans is the entered space for an extended period of time. The average human I don’t believe will ever be able to just buy a ticket and travel to mars that would include many risks that would not be worth the reward.

  9. Isaiah Belvin February 7, 2020 at 8:46 pm #

    I have mixed feelings about the idea of humans going to space. On one hand education and exploration is an amazing thing. Why not understand the space and world which we live? Yet, on the other hand because we are so uneducated on space, the unknown can be our worst enemy. One would even bring up the idea that “we cannot be the only ones in the universe.” What is out there in space can potential end us all. But this is all hypothetical which is why I am on the fence of this idea of exploring space.
    In the article Are Humans Fit for Space? A ‘Herculean’ Study Says Maybe Not, written by Jason Pontin, Pontin mentions that in the study of humans going to space, “Scott’s immune system was generally turbulent during his year in space: Many of his immune-related cellular pathways were disrupted, including the adaptive immune system, innate immune response, and the natural killer-cells that protect the body from cancers like leukemia and viruses,” (Pontin Par 25). This bring up the question of should we really be going to space if our body reacts negatively to humans being there? Maybe this study is a sign. But we will never know unless we send someone like Scott up into space to find out.
    In the study of humans going to space there as also been somewhat positive data that has come from in. Pontin also states that in the study of human space activity, “‘described the effect of space travel on Scott’s genes as “not just a sparkler—it was like fireworks in the sky.” More than 10,000 genes were activated by spaceflight. “To give you some context,” Mason explains, “there are about 58,000 known genes in the human genome, so we were seeing a lot of the body’s ability to respond activating,’ “(Pontin Par 25). Discoveries like this is a very fascinating thing, along with the other fascinating things space holds which has yet to be discovered.
    Personally, I believe that humans on earth don’t even know enough about the planet we live on. Humans are in fact ruining Earth day by day, yet humans want to be adventurous and see what is going on in space. Again, I am on the fence about space exploration, but what I am against is humans biting more off than they can chew when exploring space without focusing on issues here on Earth.

  10. Tim Foo Siam February 14, 2020 at 2:02 pm #

    This article was definitely an interesting read. I would never imagine that we would be able to perform a study on twin astronauts, but we did. The results of the study that was performed are fascinating to me, because I never thought that health changes of this extent would be a product of space travel.
    The article by Jason Pontin, breaks down the study performed on two twins, Mark and Scott Kelly. One got the luxury of performing all the tests at home, while the other had to carry them out in space for a year. He was essentially a guinea pig for the study. Pontin points out the multitude of changes that occurred to Scott’s health after space travel. Scott was subject to radiation and other forces that effected the fluids in his body, his organs, and even his chromosomes. I find it considerably courageous for someone like Scott to volunteer to take part in such a study, because he knows the extent of the damage that will be done to his body. However, Scott knows what he is doing is for the sake of science and the future of space travel. This study will act as a precedent for many trips to space to follow. Scientists will take these health risks into consideration when preparing astronauts for their journey, trying to minimize the impact that space travel does to the body.
    Pontin poses the concept of traveling to Mars, a journey that would take three times as long as Scott’s stay at the International Space Station. Having observed the damage that has been done to Scott’s body, we can only imagine what would happen to someone if we sent them to Mars. There are theorists out there who believe that once Earth becomes inhabitable, Mars will be the home that we are looking for. Research from samples that have been taken from the red planet show that the soil is composed of similar contents to that of the soil on Earth. A lot of work would have to be done to make Mars completely inhabitable, especially for millions of people.
    New advances in technology must be discovered so that we can accomplish this goal of reaching Mars. That goal may not be achieved in the near future, but we have something to look forward to. Technology has been evolving at a dangerous speed in the past few years and it only looks like it will continue to get faster.

  11. Cameron Nuessle February 14, 2020 at 6:29 pm #

    There has been a lingering question for years that we all wonder about, “Are Humans fit for Space” and it has interested the minds of children all the way up to scientists for a long time. I found this article intriguing because it explains the process for how they analyze if humans are fit for space and it gives me an in depth detail of how they simulate this procedure and study it to find conclusions. There are tremendous risks using this lapwing because our bodies are not used to this pressure and can cause loss of consciousness. I found it interesting that these cosmonauts were willing to take these risks, which might affect their well beings, to gather evidence. These experiments pose a huge risk on your body fluid and blood pressure so checking these very often is mandatory. I believe these findings will have a great effect on space travel and the ways we can prepare and prevent such health defects that sometimes may be the outcome. These experiments benefit us because they give us projections on the effects of staying in space too long and this is inevitable if we want to visit Mars in 2033 when Mars’ circuit is closest to Earth as stated in the article, or back to the moon in 2024 it is important that we know the risks we are taking. Contacting universities to conduct genetic tests on the twins was a great idea to give more of an insight on what changes occurred in these experiments. Space exploration is going to be a big part of our future and helping evolve us as a society so it is important we find out these obligations before we make it a normal occurrence to ensure safety of these travelers. Space conditions are hard to test considering the fact that we have to ensure that long term space travel does not have negative effects on the body. These tests are prominent in ensuring safe space travel and will help our search in making space travel normal and familiarizing our society with other such places that can hold civilization.

  12. Matthew Pavlik February 14, 2020 at 8:24 pm #

    You can not pay me to go two places, one of which is space (and the other will remain nameless). There are an egregious amount of variables in space travel, not even just from space but from our interactions with it: from all the garbage to the congested atmosphere littered with satellites and the fact that if anything hits your ship/station at the speeds necessary to orbit you can die, I can not see myself reasonably going there.
    The potential pain, possible cancers from cosmic radiation, and body morphing caused by inconsistent pressures over long periods of time are just the tip of the iceberg. When I was growing up, I loved the movie Wall-E — especially seeing the humans who had been in space for too long and were bloated like balloon animals. We have evidence that this happens in the short term, looking at the experiment of Scott and Mark Kelly. One of the twins went into space for a year, and the other stayed on Earth. Quoting NASA’s report on the experiment, “Scott’s telomeres (endcaps of chromosomes that shorten as one ages) actually became significantly longer in space. While this finding was presented in 2017, the team verified this unexpected change with multiple assays and genomics testing. Additionally, a new finding is that the majority of those telomeres shortened within two days of Scott’s return to Earth. (” While this is a small excerpt, the fact is that unexpected things happened which could be a view into the future of deep-space expeditions. Forget the existential risk of being smacked by an asteroid or vaporized by a gamma ray burst, the more tangible risks in space come from the fact that humans have spent millions of years evolving on Earth while only having sent a few generations into space.

  13. Mason Lai February 19, 2020 at 6:17 pm #

    Before reading the article and just by looking at the title of the article, I can already say that humans are not fit for space at all. Researchers have found that It would take one million years for humans to evolve, change and to adapt to the environment (including new ones such as space). Humans (homo sapiens) have been around on Earth for more than two hundred thousand years and our ancestors have evolved to be able to walk on two legs over 4 million years ago. Imagine how long it would take for our body to adapt and withstand the lack of atmosphere, the strong light radiation emitted from the sun and the lack of gravity in space.
    I believe it is inevitable for us to have to reside and live in space no matter if it is “fit for humans” or not. At the current rate of pollution, usage of the Earth’s natural resources and overpopulation, humans would eventually have to colonize space and live there whilst also understanding and adapting to the risks involved in living in space. But as time passes on and new wonders are being brought to this world such as the company SpaceX’s advance rockets and spacecraft and their goal of “enabling people to live on other planets” make space exploration and colonization more and more likely.
    As mentioned in the article, I can agree that our human body would likely succumb to the effects of being in space. NASA astronauts Twins Mark and Scott Kelly conducted an experiment in which Scott Kelly went and lived in space for a year while his other twin stayed on Earth. After a year, Scott came back “dumber than before” among with difference in telomeres, lowered immunity for his immune system among many others yet those returned to normal in around six months. I believe that the human body is “elastic” enough to return to it’s “previous” state if exposed in a different environment for a short amount of time yet can’t stay in space in a spacecraft for a long time because our bodies would eventually give out and we would perish as we are not evolved enough to withstand the space environment as well as the space technologies is not developed enough to help us slowly adapt and withstand space.

  14. Vasilios T Moustakis February 23, 2020 at 5:52 pm #

    Humans have to go to space. We are a glorified parasite, Earth being our current host. There are only so many resources for us to consume as the global population grows while medicine grows to boost the average lifespan, coronavirus aside. What makes us as humans special is, of course, self-awareness to provide a way to get off the planet. We need to find a suitable second Earth to migrate and preserve the Human race. That is the step required to effectively immortalize us, as we then have the technology to move to more and more planets, out the farthest reaches of the galaxy.
    First, we need to find a way to do either of two things; successfully migrate the population to a new planet, or get a few humans over to a habitable planet and have them reproduce and proliferate. So either way, we need to overcome the obstacles of space. Humans have homeostasis that allows us to adjust to a ridiculous amount of stimuli, as the twins Mark and Scott Kelly observed in experiments after a year in space, and 6 months after they landed, their bodies adjusted back to normal. The experiments found severe damage to their DNA and cells. If Humans are to make it to the other side, we need to answer a lot of questions regarding how radiation will influence reproduction. I hope the genetic studies on these twins can provide an answer, else Humanity is doomed.

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