Space travel and health impact

July 20, 2009 5:24:08 PM PDT
When Apollo 11 blasted off there were still a lot of questions about how humans would fare in space, especially on long missions.But 40 years and hundreds of missions later astronauts have become one of the most studied groups of 'patients.'

The NASTAR center in Bucks County has trained over 200 space travelers, including some on the space station and some soon to go up in Virgin's Galactica craft which will take everyday people into outer space.

Glenn King, the center's chief operating officer, says physically speaking the first impact comes when the rockets fire up.

"You're going from a 1-G environment through several G's during launch phase, and your heart's working very hard."

In fact, astronauts ride into space with their feet up, to keep blood flowing to the brain.

"Then you go into a micro-gravity situation when you're in outer space. And then your heart's saying 'oh, I can relax'."

But weightlessness allows blood to pool in the upper body. So astronauts exercise daily to counter that and to prevent muscles and bones from weakening due to lack of gravity.

"Your bones tend to strengthen with work standing, walking, and running in place."

Some astronauts do get "space sickness," which is kind of like seasickness, because balance mechanisms in the inner ear don't work as well but the body adjusts after a few days.

The next challenge is then coming back to earth's gravity.

"On Virgin Galactic, it's 6g's. That's 6 times your body weight sitting on your chest," said Brienna Henwood, NASTAR center.

But training civilians has taught NASTAR a big lesson about humans in space.

"With the right amount of training, the right conditioning, almost the entire population has the ability to go into outer space."

And while the space program has taught us a lot about the human body, it's also given us many medical tools for example, the wireless monitoring systems for heart pacemakers, better metal for dental braces, better tools to detect cancer and scratch-resistant lenses for eyeglasses.

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