The International Space Station is a unique platform offering valuable insight on human health in space. The microgravity environment can have deleterious effects on organisms, including changes to cardiovascular and musculoskeletal function and repair, neurovestibular and sensorimotor adaptation, microbiome and immune dysfunction, and delayed wound healing. Research on human health on the ISS aims to lessen the negative effects of the space environment on human health and performance.
You can find out the latest on commercial capabilities and platforms on the space station at the 2018 ISS Research and Development Conference (ISSRDC)—Monday, July 23 through Thursday, July 26 in San Francisco. ISSRDC is the place to go to hear thought leaders and subject matter experts discuss the latest R&D taking place in low Earth orbit!
A technical session on Tuesday will focus on astronaut monitoring in space, a session on Wednesday will discuss countermeasures and assistive devices for astronauts, and a session on Thursday is centered on results from research on human health in space. More details on the technical sessions are listed on the ISSRDC website.
Read below to learn some of the ways the ISS is being used to advance research on human health in space.
A lack of gravity causes bone density loss, muscle atrophy, fluid shifts, and changes in balance and coordination. Some of these changes can even affect astronauts after they return to Earth. For example, astronauts are at greater risk for osteoporosis later in life.
Proper nutrition becomes critical to humans in space to maintain health, strength, and motor function. Health is assessed before and after spaceflight to better understand how to address potential health concerns related to changes in gravity. Research is also being conducted to ensure that humans in space receive proper nutrition while still receiving appetizing food.
Additionally, measures are being taken to combat alternations in fluid distribution, such as using compression cuffs to counteract fluid shifts. Work is also being done to better understand which medications might have a more negative effect in microgravity, such as potassium citrate, which can lead to kidney stones.
Isolation and Confinement
Isolation and confinement can lead to a decline in mood, cognition, morale, and interpersonal interactions. Prolonged isolation and confinement can also cause fatigue and depression. Because astronauts must work together for long periods in confined spaces, it is important to understand group dynamics and suitability for spaceflight. Devices such as an actigraphy help to monitor and improve sleep to improve mood and alertness. LED lights that sync to circadian rhythms can also be used to improve sleep and mood. Journaling is also being implemented to allow astronauts to process thoughts and feelings on isolation and confinement.
It is important to understand the microbes in the closed environment of the ISS. Living in close quarters can impact the spread of disease-causing microbes. This, in combination with lowered immunity and increased stress levels, means a greater potential for humans in space to become ill. Monitoring air quality and swabbing the ISS allows researchers to monitor potential pathogens. Also, closely monitoring changes in the immune system of astronauts may help prevent illness.
Astronauts are exposed to 10 times the amount of radiation in space that they would encounter on Earth. Radiation sickness is characterized by nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, and fatigue. It can also impair cognitive and motor function and cause behavioral changes. Shielding protects astronauts from harmful amounts of radiation, but it is important to monitor radiation levels to ensure acceptable levels are maintained. Research continues to be done to understand how to best protect astronauts from radiation.
Distance from Earth
Because of the distance between the ISS and Earth, self-sufficiency of the crew is vital. The crew must be able to carry out their mission on their own. Work is being done to improve astronauts’ ability to collect data and solve problems independently. Astronauts are also responsible for their own health in space. Research is being done to develop protocols to address medical events and develop medications that can remain stable in space.
Read more about how the ISS is advancing research on human health in space: