We've known since the initial Apollo missions that travelling through space does strange things to the human body, but the initial results from a study of Commander Hadfield during his time aboard the ISS suggest these detrimental effects might be much worse than we had thought.
The results of the study, conducted by a University of Waterloo team led by Richard Hughson, are set to be announced at a scientific conference in Waterloo next Tuesday and reportedly illustrate a number of serious health issues that will confront long-term space voyagers. The most serious of which is a condition that mimics type-2 diabetes.
During Hadfield's five months aboard the ISS, he and four other members of his crew exhibited both elevated levels of insulin and other diabetes-related blood factors, though none of them actually showed symptoms of being diabetic. Hughson believes that the extreme sedentary nature of the astronaut's life in space—without even gravity to force one into maintaining posture—is a primary factor in the emergence of these blood factors. "They [astronauts] are the most sedentary working population that you can find," Professor Hughson told the Globe and Mail.
And that's not the only danger facing long-term astronauts. As Scott Smith, manager for nutritional biochemistry at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, explains, "In a month of spaceflight you see about the same change in bone that you see in a year in a postmenopausal woman. It's like doing time-lapse photography." There's also the danger of going space blind, as Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk did in 2009, due to uncontrollable swelling of his optic nerves.
Together, these physiological symptoms—bone loss, reduced mental capacity, and farsightedness—all closely resemble what our elderly suffer here on Earth. This could eventually lead to better treatments for these diseases and a more robust understanding of the human ageing process in general. And hopefully there's also a solution that will let us keep our astronauts safe in orbit too. [Globe and Mail]