July 17, 2024
1 Solar System Way, Planet Earth, USA

How are astronauts kept healthy in space? Is not easy.

In the next decade, more people than ever will go to space as human spaceflight enters a new era. NASA, the European Space Agency and other government agencies are partnering to develop manned missions beyond the Moon. At the same time, these agencies are collaborating with private companies that use new technologies to reduce the price of space exploration.

Companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Sierra Space have developed vehicles with reusable propellants, automated flight systems and lightweight materials to support these deep space missions. Some even have ambitions of their own to build private space stations, moon bases or mining operations in the coming decades.

But as these technologies and partnerships quickly make spaceflight more accessible, new challenges arise. On the one hand, maintain the health and performance of a crew of astronauts. My team of researchers and educators at the University of Colorado and others around the world are seeking to address this problem.

Emerging medical challenges in space

NASA astronauts are some of the most successful people on the planet and some of the healthiest. Astronauts undergo extensive medical and psychological tests that, in a study disqualified 26% of applicants from the final round. This rigorous screening and testing process effectively limits the possibility of a medical event occurring during a mission.

But as spaceflight becomes more accessible, astronaut crews on commercial missions will likely make up the majority of space travelers in the coming years. Private missions will be short and remain in close orbit around Earth in the short term, but private crews will likely have Less training and more chronic medical conditions. than professional astronauts who currently live and work in space.

While experiments aboard the International Space Station Although they have exhaustively studied the normal physiological changes that occur in the human system under conditions of weightlessness, there is hardly any data on how common chronic diseases such as diabetes or high blood pressure behave in the space environment.

This industry boom is also creating opportunities for long-duration missions by Moon and Mars. Due to the length of the missions and the distance from Earth, professionals astronauts on these missions will experience Prolonged weightlessness, which causes bone and muscle loss, communication delays of a few seconds up to 40 minutes, and extreme isolation for months or years at a time.

Crews must function autonomously, while being exposed to new dangers such as lunar or Martian dust. Due to the fuel required for these missions, resources will be limited to the lowest possible mass and volume.

As a result, mission planners will have to make difficult decisions to determine in advance what supplies are truly needed, with resupply opportunities for food, water and medicine limited or unavailable. In space, for example, radiation and humidity inside a spacecraft can cause medications to deteriorate faster and become unavailable or even toxic to crew members.

Space station crews have access to a flight surgeon at Mission Control to help manage healthcare in the same way telehealth is used on Earth. However, crews on distant planets will need to perform medical care or procedures autonomously.

In the event of a medical emergency, crews may not be able to evacuate to Earth. Unlike the space station, where medical evacuations to Earth can occur in less than 24 hours, Moon evacuations can take weeks.. Evacuations from Mars may not be possible for months or even years.

Simply put, current approaches to spaceflight healthcare will not meet the needs of future commercial and professional astronauts. Researchers will need to develop new technologies and novel training approaches to prepare future providers to treat medical conditions in space.

Today's leaders in space medicine are experts in either aerospace engineering or medicine, but rarely do experts have formal training or complete knowledge of both fields. And these disciplines often cannot speak each other's languages, either literally or figuratively.

Train the next generation

To meet the changing demands of human spaceflight, educators and universities are seeking to develop a way to train specialists who understand both the limitations of the human body and the limitations of engineering design.

Some schools and hospitals, such as University of Texas Medical Branch, have residency training programs for medical school graduates in aerospace medicine. Others, like UCLA and Massachusetts General HospitalThey have specialized training programs in space medicine, but these are currently aimed at fully trained emergency physicians.

My team at the University of Colorado has created a program that integrates human physiology and engineering principles to train medical students to think like engineers.

This program aims to help students understand human health and performance in the spaceflight environment. Approach these issues from a engineering design and limitations perspective to find solutions to the challenges astronauts will face.

One of our most popular classes is called Mars in simulated surface environments. This class places students in medical and engineering scenarios in a simulated Mars environment in the Utah desert. Students face the challenges of working and providing care while wearing a spacesuit and in a desolate Mars-like landscape.

The stress of the simulations can feel real to students, and they learn to apply their combined skills to care for their crewmates.

Educational programs like these and others aim to create cross-trained specialists who understand both patient care and the procedural nature of engineering design and can merge the two, whether for space tourists in orbit or as pioneers on the surface of another planet. .

A new period of spaceflight has arrived and these programs are already training experts to make space accessible and safe.

This article was first published in The conversation. It is reprinted here under a Creative Commons license.

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