Stars, Mars and the vomit comet

1 March 2011

 Greenwood Space Travel Supply Co.
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Greenwood Space Travel Supply Co. by WordRidden, on Flickr

Space travel might sound glamorous, but it’s not all playing golf on the moon. For a start, in zero gravity your bone and muscle start to rot. February’s Packed Lunch featured a scientist whose speciality is keeping spacemen healthy. Benjamin Thompson found out more…

February’s Packed Lunch at Wellcome Collection concentrated on the subject of space and space travel – along with dinosaurs, one of the two things that got me hooked on science as a child. This month’s interviewee was Dr Kevin Fong, anaesthetist, Lecturer in Physiology and co-director of the Centre for Aviation Space and Extreme Environment (CASE) Medicine at UCL: you might have seen him on TV.

Fong discussed a variety of topics, including why being in space is bad for our health, whether astronauts really do have ‘The Right Stuff’ and why humanity needs to continue exploring the heavens.

The lunch began with Dr Fong describing an experiment he participated in at the Johnson Space Centre, Houston. It involved being strapped to a plank and spun at 45 rpm for an hour, watching a Harry Potter film. The point of this? To experience an artificial gravity. Being spun like this forces the blood to your feet, making you feel bent over for the time you’re spinning. The reason for Harry Potter? That was the only DVD available.

While this might seem a bit daft, it’s all preparatory work for sending people to Mars. It turns out that over long periods of time, weightlessness is very bad for our bodies. As humans we are entirely designed to live under the Earth’s gravitation pull of one g (what are the chances?), so as soon as we encounter zero gravity, Fong explained, we basically we begin to rot. This might sound extreme, but it makes sense. When weightless our skeleton and muscles no longer need to support our weight so they begin to degrade. Add to this an inability to sleep or eat healthily (no refrigerators in space) and the astronaut has a multitude of problems to deal with both in space and when re-acclimatising after returning home.

Health maintenance of astronauts is very important and this is the role of a space doctor, or flight surgeon. Space is not an easy place to practice medicine, with many of the procedures we take for granted on terra firma not working under zero g. There’s not much spare room in a rocket to take medical supplies with you on a mission, and everything has to be thoroughly tested in weightless conditions on Earth using the delightfully titled ‘vomit comet’, an aeroplane that through clever flying can provide short periods of zero g.

Thus far, doctors haven’t been specifically sent on space missions. Fong explained that given the relatively short distance between here and the International Space Station, if you are taken ill, you can be home in a few hours and cared for by the cream of the US Army Medical Services. Currently the biggest danger from spaceflight is the travelling. Either everyone returns safe, or no one does…

This will all change, though, if/when humans are sent to Mars. If you’re a year and a half away from home, becoming seriously ill is bad news. Fong explained that risk analysis from activities carried out in extreme environments, such as Antarctica, or in submarines, suggests that it is more likely than not that something will go wrong. This suggests it’s best to send a doctor on the mission. But what if the doctor gets sick? Do you send one or two? The debate is raging, and is likely to for a while.

Fong was asked if, in today’s testing economic climate, he thought that space exploration could still be justified. He wondered whether space travel be viewed in future times in the same way as we do the pyramids now, a one-off project achieved at massive cost, both human and economic? Or will commercial bodies step in, reducing the cost and boosting the speed of knowledge creation?

He explained that although expensive and dangerous, manned space travel can teach us things that robotic missions simply can’t. For example, we only know how old the rocky planets in the solar system are by studying and ageing moon rocks brought back from the Apollo missions and counting the numbers of craters seen on the other planets to extrapolate their ages. In total, all the robotic missions have brought back a sum total of 37 grams of rock, whilst manned missions have brought back around 500 kilos. If we truly want to look for evidence of life – extinct or otherwise – beyond our own planet, we’re going to have to send people.

Benjamin Thompson is a writer at the Wellcome Trust.