23 July 2012
In space, no one can hear you sneeze.
Though astronauts have been flying above the Earth for more than half a century, researchers are still working to understand the medical toll that space takes on travelers’ bodies and minds. Astronauts must deal with a highly stressful environment, as well as weakening bones and muscles and the ever-present dangers of radiation. If people are ever to venture far from our home planet, such obstacles will need to be overcome.
Humans are adapted to living with the constant pull of the Earth’s gravity. Astronauts may seem carefree while floating around in the weightless environment aboard rockets and space stations. But like teenagers, their bodies experience all sorts of awkward changes. Some of the long-term problems, such as bone loss and radiation exposure, seem to put the kibosh on plans for regular interplanetary travel, at least for now. But medical researchers at places like the National Space Biomedical Research Institute are looking for ways to counteract and cure these ailments.
In this gallery, Wired takes a look at some of the curious, bizarre, and potentially dangerous ways that space affects the human body and mind.
Flying Space Barf
Like sailors adjusting to the sea, astronauts usually take some time getting their space legs. During the adaptation to weightlessness, many space travelers’ first experiences include motion sickness, visual illusions, and disorientation.
Space adaptation sickness affects about half of all people who have been to space, to differing degrees of severity. Symptoms are jokingly ranked on the “Garn scale,” named after Jake Garn, who flew aboard the Space Shuttle in 1985 and apparently experienced the maximum level of retching and discomfort while adjusting to zero g. Though these symptoms typically pass within a few days, they can be dangerous. Astronauts who don spacesuits need to take anti-nausea medication to combat motion sickness because free-floating vomit inside a spacesuit could be a fatal choking hazard.
With several private companies now promising weightlessness during tourist trips to space, the effects of space sickness may start to factor into more people’s lives. After all, who wants to float around in a swanky Virgin Galactic cabin packed with several other passengers and their flying barf?