Astronauts have been going into space for 61 years now to unleash the human potential for exploration. But the floating freedom offered by the absence of gravity also imposes a number of limitations when it comes to the human body and mind.
Astronauts have been going into space for 61 years now to unleash the human potential for exploration.
But the floating freedom offered by the absence of gravity also imposes a number of limitations when it comes to the human body and mind.
Short space flights after the first Mercury and Apollo missions turned into stays aboard the International Space Station for six months or more. The floating lab has served as the perfect backdrop for scientists trying to understand what’s really going on with every aspect of the human body in the space environment – radiation, lack of gravity and all.
Many of these effects have been well documented over time, most notably during the 2019 Twin Study, which compared the changes Scott Kelly experienced after nearly a year in space to those of his twin brother Mark, who remained on Earth.
Christopher Mason of Weill Cornell Medicine collaborated with NASA on this study, and he and Scott Kelly presented these findings at the 2022 Life Itself conference, a health and wellness event presented in partnership with CNN.
“What did you miss the most on Earth when you were away for a year?” Mason asked Kelly.
“The weather, of course. Rain, sun, wind,” Kelly said. “And then I miss people… who are important to you, you know, your family, your friends.”
As NASA plans to return humans to the Moon and eventually land on Mars as part of the Artemis program, there is growing interest in understanding what the consequences of long-term deep space travel could be.
The big question some scientists are asking is whether people are mentally and emotionally ready for such a big leap. In short: how are we going to deal with this?
In a 2021 study, participants lived in simulated weightlessness for almost two months, resting on a special bed with their heads tilted down at a 6-degree angle. Tilt creates a shift of bodily fluids in the direction of the head, which astronauts experience when there is a lack of gravity.
Participants were regularly asked to take cognitive tests designed for astronauts that dealt with memory, risk taking, emotion recognition, and spatial orientation.
The researchers wanted to test whether exposure to artificial gravity for 30 minutes a day, either all at once or in five-minute periods, could prevent negative effects. While study participants experienced an initial decline in cognitive performance on their tests, it leveled off and did not persist through the full 60 days.
But the speed with which they recognized emotions generally worsened. During tests, they were more likely to perceive facial expressions as angry rather than happy or neutral.
“Astronauts in deep space flights, very similar to the participants in our research, …