Get # Into the Cosmos Without a Hitch: Unpacking the Health Impacts of Short Space Journeys

Space missions have long captured the imagination, conjuring up thoughts of adventure but also those of the unknown. Moving towards the reality of commercial space travel, where price tags might bring about shorter, more frequent trips to orbit, one question stands out: what are the implications for human health? We are now one step closer to answering this question, thanks to new findings from the first all-civilian space mission, Inspiration4. It seems that the final frontier might be closer than you realise – even to your good health.

A Small Step for the Crew, A Giant Leap for Space Medicine

When, in September 2021, the Inspiration4 mission launched into low Earth orbit on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, it was the beginning of an era of civilian spaceflight. The crew orbited Earth for three days, the same cadence as many ISS stints. Researchers were able to collect more than 100,000 health-related data points from that trip, giving researchers a rare window into how short-duration spaceflight can alter the human body. Emmanuel Urquieta of Baylor’s Center for Space Medicine noted the mission’s novel use of biomedical research techniques on an entirely private astronaut crew. ‘There are a lot of people [who] have never flown in space before, and they have very different backgrounds, very different medical histories.

The Dance of Motion in Zero Gravity

One of the most notable findings has been space motion sickness, which affected the Inspiration4 crew – half of whom were returning spaceflight veterans – suggesting that even after decades of exploring space, the human body has not yet adapted to the microgravity environment. Cardiovascular and cognitive responses to spaceflight were also found to be limited but varied between individuals, indicating a complex interaction between space travel and how the body responds to it.

The Tools That Made It All Possible

Thanks in part to biosample collection instruments, a hand-held ultrasound scanner and real-time analysis kits specially adapted for zero-gravity, the mission also achieved success in its goal of collecting and assessing health data in space. The data gathered will undoubtedly help in moving forward with spaceflight research.

Expanding Our Knowledge: The Role of EXPAND

The crew’s data and biosamples are now a part of EXPAND, a groundbreaking database devoted to improving space health through the discovery of ‘principies of biology and pathology that can be applied to both astronauts and society’. In the words of Wu: ‘With EXPAND, we will utilise the insights gained from commercial spaceflight missions to expand human health research so that it benefits all of us back on Earth.’ The database unites the worlds of space and medicine.

Motion in Spaceflight: A Complex Phenomenon

How to handle the problem of motion in space, including space motion sickness, the ailment that occurs in low Earth orbit and beyond, is revealing. Symptoms in humans seem to be the same as those of motion sickness on Earth. Anything that happens as a result of the absence of gravity provides insight into how the human brain adapts to its novel surroundings, and so cognitively and psychologically, it holds meaning. Learning about how motion sickness works in space has led to a better understanding of how it works on Earth, in particular for how humans perceive space and motion.

Charting the Future of Space Medicine

And the Inspiration4 mission certainly furthered the argument that space, long a domain uniquely owned by professional astronauts, is now been open to more and more civilians. It also demonstrated that, with the right tools, and the right questions, the health risk of space travel can be carefully monitored and managed. All of this bodes well for the future of space travel as a safe and viable endeavour – for researchers, astronauts, and all of us.

Understanding Motion in Space

Courtesy SpaceXAn underlying dream of space travel, and especially of the health of the space traveller, is the role that motion in space plays in human wellbeing. And the Inspiration4 mission shows us that we have science, space medicine and a better understanding of how the human body and brain respond to even brief periods of flight to begin to see a day when space travel could be as routine as air travel. The mission’s use of innovative technology to study how our bodies might respond to time in a microgravity environment is a shining example of how innovation and discovery are now working hand in hand to usher in a new future for space travel that’s safe, accessible and fun.

Jun 12, 2024
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