By Dr Ajey Lele,
On July 20, 2021, Jeff Bezos the richest man in the world undertook space travel along with three other people, which included an 82-year-old woman pilot,Wally Funk who incidentally has become the oldest person to fly in space so far. This entire flight lasted for around ten minutes. The flight reached an altitude of 100km above the earth’s surface and the passengers did experience the feeling of weightlessness for a few minutes. The duration of this flight was hardly ten minutes, however, it does raise questions about what should be the physical condition of the people for undertaking space travel.
Human’s visiting space is not a new thing. On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel into space. Since then, space agencies are working on various medical aspects of space travel. Particularly, the International Space Station (ISS) is known to be hosting humans without any break since November 2, 2000. Till date more than 240 astronauts have stayed on ISS. Obviously, a good amount of information about the impact on human health in space is available. By now, good medical research has happened in respect of the health related issues in outer space, particularly to enable humans to withstand the space environment for long periods like six months or so.
The selection process of astronauts is very tough. There is a thorough medical examination of the individuals who are keen to get trained as astronauts. Here the emphasis is both on physical and mental health. Mostly, aviators end up becoming astronauts and as such these people are required to remain physically and mentally fit to perform their aviation duties. Even during training, apart from other factors, health factors are also taken into consideration to ensure that only healthy individuals who can withstand the rigorous training are recommended for becoming astronauts.
While staying in space, astronauts are required to ensure healthy diet intake and are required to follow a strict exercise routine. This is essential because the microgravity atmosphere in which they stay weakens their muscles and reduces bone density. Presently, apart from the astronauts staying at ISS, three Chinese astronauts are staying in China’s underdevelopment space station. These astronauts are also known to be using devices like neuromuscular electrical stimulators to stimulate the nerves in their muscles. This helps restore function and prevent muscle weakening. At the space station, there are various medical equipment available for checking the health parameters. Astronauts routinely get medical advice from the doctors on earth.
Space related health issues are different from what we experience on earth. Astronauts are required to handle physiological changes caused by weightlessness. Physically, weightlessness is known to alter the sense of balance. There are issues regarding loss of blood volume, which makes astronauts feel lightheaded when they stand up. Exposure to radiation is another problem which demands both medical and non-medical solutions. Till date, astronauts are known to have experienced health related problems like upper respiratory infections, colds, skin infections and urinary tract infections. The main challenges faced are related to some form of injuries, because in space it takes time for wound healing and stopping blood flow. Astronauts are required to maintain very good hygiene on the space station; this helps them avoid any unnecessary infections.
In regards to commercial space travel, it appears that such detailed medical attention and medical research may not be required. This is not to argue that ‘health’ is not going to be a factor in respect to space tourism. Even during ten to fifteen minutes of space flight: microgravity, high acceleration, and radiation exposure would leave some impact on the human body. Hence, there could be different medical implications in regards to space tourism. Also, the future of space tourism is not going to get restricted only to suborbital space travel. There are ideas like having space hotels, where people could stay for a few days. More importantly health would be an extremely important issue when commercial travel to the Moon and Mars would begin.
It is expected that the type of space tourism, which Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are offering in near future, would make space accessible to the general (rich) public. Now is the time to formulate medical guidelines even for this type of travel. The people who are allowed to travel should be in good health and should not be suffering from heart and blood pressure related complications. Also, proper medical advance needs to be taken in case of people with psychiatric illness. It is important to put in place some policies for possible medical emergencies. It is essential for the management of Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin to collect and share the medical data of space tourists before, during and after their space travel to appropriate agencies for undertaking health assessments, which would prove beneficial for the entire space tourism industry.
(The author is Senior Fellow, MP-IDSA, New Delhi. He can be reached at: ajey.lele@gmail(dot)com Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)