Space Physiology

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You don't sink to the bottom of the ocean, you don't float to the top. That, for all intents and purposes, is what it's like to float in space. The only thing that's different is that the views are quite a bit different when you're up in space. Secondly, if you were to kick in the water, of course, you're going to propel yourself, but up in space, you just look silly. Does lack of gravity ever get old or tiring? Microgravity, or weightlessness never gets old. In fact, you enjoy it more and more with each subsequent mission.

You get better at it. If you look at the astronaut crews that are living aboard the International Space Station now, they look like Olympic gymnasts or divers. They can fly with the greatest of ease. They can do barrel rolls and aileron rolls like an aerobatic pilot.

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It's really graceful and beautiful. The more time you have up there, the more fun it gets. I've been very, very fortunate. That's the ultimate astronaut experience, to get outside in your own personal spaceship. Everything that you need to sustain life in a spaceship, you need to have on your back or around you to take you safely out into the vacuum of space.

The temperature extremes when we're behind the Earth and in shadow, what we call orbital night, can be degrees below zero — [it is] incredibly, brutally cold. When we're in direct sunlight, in orbital day, we can be degrees above zero. In one orbit of the Earth, in a 90 minute period, we can see a degree temperature change. They're doing a lot of work for us. We couldn't imagine going outside without them.

It's with twin astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly. Scott will be in space for a year while his brother Mark will be on Earth.


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Mark and Scott are good buddies of mine and I'm really excited for Scott's big adventure. He'll be in orbit for days, almost a full year, whereas his astronaut brother will be grounded. He is also an astronaut, so we have lots of data going back to his initial selection, actually for both of the astronauts. We'll be able to look at how Scott's body adjusts to weightlessness for a long period of time. When astronauts go into space it's essentially an accelerated aging process. The heart doesn't need to pump against gravity, so it atrophies.

The muscles and bones that hold us up here on Earth, they don't have to work as hard so they atrophy as well. Scott's going to try and exercise as much as he can and keep his physical integrity the best that he can. But it won't be the same as being on Earth. Comparing these two individuals at the end of his mission will be very, very interesting. Looking at all sorts of different physical parameters. They'll be looking at bone density, muscle strength, they'll be looking at balance.

They'll be looking at the vision to see if there's any visual shifts. Scott will have a really tough time with a fluid shift coming back to Earth. He'll feel very lightheaded once he initially lands. I have some funny stories just from space shuttle astronauts getting back to Earth, forgetting how to throw things. When we're up in space we have a meal together. We can toss tortillas across the cabin just like a Frisbee and you can catch it in your teeth. When you get back to Earth and you try and shoot a basketball for example, every shot is an air ball. You can't relearn that arc.

It takes quite some time.

Balance is very challenging the first few days back on Earth as well. Scott will need to go basically through physical therapy to get his strength back over several months. When we're talking about spending time in space, while you haven't spent years in space or even I guess you could say What differences did you notice most about your body when in space and when you returned to Earth? I think up in space I was really stunned by how quickly I adapted into that environment, how natural it was for human beings to be there.

How quickly we learn to move, how quickly it feels like home. I think the human being is so adaptable to many different challenging environments. The real challenge is coming back home to one gravity.

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I remember my first mission I had my orange pumpkin suit on which has oxygen cylinders and a parachute harness, and all the survival gear on me. Carrying your own body weight, let alone 70 additional pounds, plus that acceleration squeezing you down into your seat, I felt very, very heavy and it was very uncomfortable initially. Slowly we got out of our suit and we readjusted to Earth's gravity.

For a short shuttle flight we can do quite well. It's much more of a challenge for those crew members who spend six or more months up in space. I started the show talking about a trip to Mars. What are likely the biggest challenges for humans who travel to Mars? I think there are a number of challenges that can be met.

One is the radiation risk to crew members. It's a long time outside of the Earth's magnetic fields, which protect us from radiation. Radiation of course can give us cancer. It actually can prove fatal in very high doses. We call it acute radiation poisoning. It's a very serious thing. We need to design our spacecraft to help shield the crew from that radiation and make our trip to Mars as quick as possible so that we limit the integrated exposure to radiation. The other thing that's going to be difficult is it's a long time for our radio waves to get to Mars.

It could be several minutes one way. We're very accustomed on the International Space Station to just pick up the microphone and talk to Mission Control, and they have an immediate answer for us. But say we have a surgical emergency, and the crew medical officer on board has never done that kind of a surgery before, or we have a faulty piece of equipment that is life critical and we need to act quickly, we need to have the resources on board to be able to deal with lots of different contingencies.

Selecting the crew, selecting the kinds of training, selecting the provisioning of the spacecraft, what are we going to take with us? Lots of different exciting challenges for engineers and scientists to figure out. Cheryl's done quite a bit of research in space. Not that she's been in space, but her experiments have. She spends a lot of time thinking about microbes and things that could actually make you rather sick.

Is this another area that we need to explore for our trip to Mars? Studying how pathogens, that they're called, the bacteria that can infect the body and be a problem for us, is an amazingly important area for us to look at. Also, how our immune system, the part of our body that protects us from infection changes as well. We need to learn more about that. Secondarily, I think it's important that we study these areas because it can actually help us here, on Earth. If we can understand how salmonella, like Dr. Cheryl Nickerson studies, how that can mutate and be more pathogenic, or harmful to the body up in space, perhaps we can design better antibiotics or other treatment strategies to fight these deadly pathogens.

When we talked about the challenges with being in space and the lack of gravity, I've read that astronauts can exercise up to two hours a day. I also was doing some research on you, and I understand that you've been involved with design of some of these exercise equipment.

When we go into space, basically our body goes on holiday. We don't need to lift our muscles and bones, our body weight, against the force of gravity, so our muscles grow weak. Our bones grow weak. To maintain our muscle and bone health, we need to somehow figure out a way to replicate what we call the loading history. We need to have our muscles and bones see the same amount of work, such that when we come back to Earth, or when we land on Mars, we'll have the physical strength to get up and get out in an emergency or to go to assembling a Mars colony, or what have you.

We need to have strategies that keep the body healthy, muscles, bones, as well as the heart. The problem is it's very costly to fly up a full gymnasium into space. We can't take stacks and stacks of weights because they would be meaningless.


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We have to think of different ways to provide resistance to the body. We use hydraulic systems and other types of resistive mechanisms to give ourselves that loading history when we get up into space. We have treadmills that have special harnesses that pull us down onto the treadmill surface so that we can feel like we're running on Earth.

We have big hydraulic systems that press down on our bodies and we can resist those as if we were doing a squat or something like that. The things that I've been interested in working on are devices that are very small and lightweight and compact because, when we go to Mars, we won't have the ability to take a huge system like even onboard the International Space Station, it's quite a large facility.

We'll need something that can fit in a tiny capsule with four or six crewmembers, so thinking about how we can miniaturize these technologies but still provide the workload that they need. Sleep is really fun and interesting in space, especially in weightlessness. I think, perhaps sleeping on the moon or Mars would be more like sleeping here, on Earth. When you're in space, first off, you don't need quite as much sleep because your body hasn't done as much physical labor.

We aren't carrying our body around, so we don't get as physically tired as we would on a day here, on Earth, except if you've been out on a spacewalk, which is very physically taxing. We have sleeping bags, just like on a camping trip. You're actually floating inside your sleeping bag. There are times when you don't have any contact at all with your sleeping bag, you're just kind of floating inside this bag.

For some of us, it's kind of disconcerting to not have a physical contact with something. NASA engineers are very clever. They created a special pillow for us that has a Velcro strap that allows us to Velcro our head to the pillow, and that gives us a sense of connectivity, of grounding. Then, psychologically we're able to then sleep.

Space Physiology

When we talk about the first step, we could say we had our first step, we went to the moon. Now we're talking about humans traveling to Mars. There's a debate about this, whether we really should go to Mars or not. I suspect you have a view on this. I think it's ultimate human destiny that we will go. It's not a question of if, but when. The reason we'll go is to satisfy human curiosity. Of course, the technology's getting better. In order to really accelerate knowledge, to press technology, to really make the ultimate types of discoveries, did life once exist on Mars?

Does it exist to this day in the permafrost, or near Olympus Mons, the tallest mountain in the solar system? I think we're going to need to send human explorers to not just survey point locations in a simple and limited way. But we're going to need to send explorers that can cover vast distances, make the real time decisions to pick up that rock, and not that rock, to be able to fix and repair and make iterative decisions in science, to really accelerate the growth of knowledge.

The other reason that we'll go is much the reason that we went to the moon, we didn't realize it at the time, I think, but when we take on great challenges like this, we all benefit in terms of new technologies, new industries, new ways of thinking and doing business and, of course, the inspiration that follows.

We don't know how we're really going to get to Mars yet, how we'll sustain life, how we'll bring the crew back. All these things are very daunting challenges that will be very specialized solutions for that mission. But it will have a huge trickle effect to our national economy, to the world as a whole. Quite honestly, when we do go to Mars, it may be as part of an international collaborative effort. It may actually be something that brings the world together as well.

I would not minimize the impact on learning about the human body. This will be one of the great challenges.

Space and Aviation Physiology

It'll be a unique set of circumstances that I think the International Space Station is helping us get ready for, but we won't really know until we send crews out there. OK, let's come back to Earth. You also like to climb mountains.

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I've climbed all over the world. I've been very fortunate to climb all up and down the Rockies. I've been in Alaska. I've been to the Alps, the Andes. But perhaps my biggest claim to fame or notoriety is a couple of seasons on Mt. Everest, which was by boyhood dream to get a chance to climb that mountain.

Space, but I wouldn't trade the experience of Everest for a second. It's interesting when I think back on Everest, it took me two tries to make it to the top. My first season, I ended up rupturing a disc in my low back and had to limp on down from a very high altitude. The fact that I didn't succeed my first year, and I was able to persevere, I had to have surgery actually to get a disc fixed, but I returned the next year, and I was successful. I think anything that we really have to fight for, anything that's a real challenge ends up being more rewarding in the long run, so I think back on my successful summit of Everest as one of my proudest achievements actually.

One of your interests as a physiologist and a physician is how humans adjust and adapt to extreme conditions and stressful environments. Space is one place we can see both extreme and stressful environments, another would be high altitude. Did you find that your experiences in space and climbing mountains had any similarities? Great question, and there are many parallels actually.

I remember walking, well actually crawling, out of the vestibule of my tent at Camp Four on Mt. Everest the morning of my summit and thinking, "This is just like floating out of the airlock hatch on a spacewalk. I had a big, puffy down suit on. I had on big boots, a harness on. I was clipping into a fixed line, and I had an oxygen mask on, lights, cameras, big, bulky gloves, and complete pitch darkness just as if I was exiting the air lock at orbital nighttime.

I realized that I was also very dependent upon my team and the equipment that I was relying upon and my training and my judgment, and I thought, "I'm well prepared. I've had all these experiences in space, and I'm ready for my summit. I have actually been on a taller mountain than Mt. Everest, and I want to give the height of Everest is 29, feet.

It's a little under 9, meters, and I want to be really clear. I'm not saying higher than Mt. Actually, it's not the tallest.

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I've been on Mt. Lam Lam, which is on the island of Guam, and there's some controversy whether they call it a mountain or not. But I can say what you don't know is that little, tiny peak that's above the water actually goes all the way down Scientists use these findings to develop and test countermeasures that can reduce or reverse the potentially harmful impacts of the space environment.

The human body is a remarkably complex assembly of systems. To carry out even the simplest task requires the input and cooperation of a highly orchestrated set of subsystems, such as nerves, bones, muscles, organs, and tissues. Scientists and engineers have dedicated decades of study to understanding the limits, constraints, and challenges that face the human body in the environment of space. Skip to main content. Area of Study - Physiology Over time, the human body has evolved in response to the unique characteristics of the Earth environment.