Human space exploration is a fascinating concept that has given way to science fiction fantasies and box office mania for decades. NASA is on the war path to make this fantasy a reality with the Orion project to Mars and nearby asteroids. While this facilitates space exploration, it also introduces new, innovative technologies needed to bring these plans to fruition. Figuring out how to live in a deep space environment for long periods of time requires innovation in food production, water filtration, life support and whole body health in a zero or micro-gravity environment.
To further their understanding of how the human body handles the rigors of space, Astronaut Scott Kelly is on a one-year mission on the International Space Station (ISS). On October 29, 2015, he beat the record for the single-longest spaceflight by an American with 216 consecutive days. While he is spending a year in space, his twin, Mark Kelly, is being studied on terra firma to compare how Scott’s brain and muscle function changes in a microgravity environment. MRI’s of the brain are taken before the astronauts leave Earth and when they return to study how space changes brain function and structure. While in space, astronauts take computerized cognitive tests to see how the physical environment changes their brain function.
Another major concern is how blood flows through the body without the presence of gravity, especially from the brain to the heart. A special neck collar was created to measure blood flow from the brain and doesn’t require any special knowledge or ability to operate. The psychological effects of relatively solitary space flight in very close quarters is studied through journal entries made by the scientists. The results are used to plan future flight missions to help alleviate stress.
NASA is teaming with the Russian Space Agency, called Roscosmos, to study fluid shift in space. It is believed that fluids move to a person’s upper body in microgravity, much like when you hang upside down and the blood rushes toward your head. During the one year mission, they will conduct numerous studies to see how this fluid shift affects intracranial pressure and vision in astronauts. The difficult part of studying fluid shift is that it affects everybody differently with varying levels of severity. Researchers are working with the Russian owned Chibis suit that is designed to return fluids to the lower body. Researchers have to move all of their equipment from the US side of the ISS to the Russian side where the suit is hardwired in fixed racks. They are also testing noninvasive techniques to record intracranial pressure by measuring sound and pressure waves in the inner ear. Researchers will have to better understand and mitigate these problems in order to facilitate long-term space flight. As scientists work to overcome numerous barriers to deep space flight, they push technology and innovation forward into the future.