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Thursday, 15 August 2013

Microgravity: A First Look

Microgravity is one of the most dangerous, unconquered risks involved with working in space or other planets. In this post, we will explore a few of the concepts and problems involved with working in space.

One of the earliest and most iconic indicators of being in space is the sensation of weighlessness. We've seen video footage of astronauts floating around, and recently watched Chris Hadfield spinning his guitar like the space rock star that he is, and it looks so joyous and grand.

Microgravity is a deceptive problem because most people think that taking a respite from the burden of gravity would be nice. Floating above the couch, fluttering toward the kitchen for snacks. What they forget or fail to realize is that our bodies were designed with gravity in mind and our bodies don't like change as much as our purses or pants pockets seem to.

The first feeling one has is nausea. Internal organs floating and shifting out of place and our inner ear's sense of equilibrium becomes disturbed. The word "down" is so often taken for granted on Earth but really it is the direction toward Earth's centre of gravity.

With little to no sensation of gravity, down becomes up, and terms like these become obsolete. Nausea sets in and your stomach, which is now literally rising in your body, feels caught in your throat.

Your circulatory system, used to fighting against gravity, now has an easier time of moving blood around. Blood pressure increases as your heart is slow to adapt, and blood starts pooling in your extremities (i.e. your hands and feet). As your body adapts, your heart slows down, works less, and becomes smaller.

Your muscles feel less than useful and eventally become so. Muscles work off resistence. Like a good underdog, your muscles work hardest when the odds against them are greater. In space, no effort is needed to move or lift objects and so your muscles get lazy. This laziness increases toward atrophy as your muscles become smaller and weaker.

You might be thinking, Yeah but astronauts train against the nausea. And if we're in space we really don't need our muscles anyway, right? Sure, coming back to Earth might be an issue but that's a problem for Future Us, right?

Well no. The nausea that sets in is referred to as Space Motion Sickness and cases have shown that it does not discriminate against age, sex, health of individual, or experience. An astronaut that feels it once is likely to feel it again.

Even those who are less likely to feel nauseous still have to deal with "space fog". Not as science fiction or horror story as it sounds, space fog is also referred to as "space stupids" or "mental viscosity" and is the feeling of light-headedness and lack of concentration experienced in microgravity. Similar to the feeling of standing up too fast and feeling dizzy, jet pilots and astronauts feel a lag in their mental reaction time as their brains receive a different flow rate of blood than they're used to.

Your bones, like your muscles, love to work hard and become less useful in space. With little to no work to do, bones lose calcium and density in space. Although astronauts try supplimenting this loss through calcium pills, a strict diet, and exercise, none of these strategies have had any discernible effect.

And that's only the beginning. McCoy wasn't wrong when he talked about the dangers of space. This post briefly touches upon the dangers of microgravity but there are entire books on the subject. I am soon to begin my Masters program where I will be learning all about spacecraft design and engineering. I see a role to play, a niche to fill, and that's in the area of protecting astronauts from the dangers of space.

Over the past few years, I've been reading about the dangers of space, whether it be electrical or plasma, microgravity, or space radiation. Excitingly, the Dean and one of the professors overseeing my Masters program have written a few books on the subject and thus I know there will be people to field my questions and help guide my progress. For more information, two books I have used for my research so far are: Artificial Gravity, and Fundamentals of Space Medicine by Gilles Clément.

As the school year approaches, more ideas and research comes to light. I look forward to sharing my discoveries and work with you here!

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