Yes, astronauts can get sick in space. Scientists are now looking for unconventional ways to treat illnesses while working around the absence of gravity.
How would astronauts get medical treatment in space?
No, astronauts don’t get sick with the common things that we Earth-bound humans get sick with. The International Space Station (ISS), let’s remember, sits 400 kilometers above the surface of the Earth, and is also hermetically sealed at that. Thus, astronauts don’t get things like the flu or the common cold, because it’s highly unlikely that they’ll catch an infectious illness. Of course, astronauts need to be in the pink of health before they go off to the ISS. They don’t leave Earth with a runny nose.
However, living in zero gravity can do a number on human beings, both physiologically and psychologically. Astronauts that have been living on the ISS for six months or more can experience bone loss or weakening, blood volume loss, atrophying muscles, weakened immune systems, worse vision, and a number of other things. Thus, even if you go in healthy, you won’t come back the same.
Common medical procedures won't work well in space.
Medical support in space is something that needs to be improved on. So far, no major medical procedures have taken place on the ISS, and the only fatalities have occurred when astronauts were in flight toward or away from the space station. However, things can always go wrong. Because conditions in space can be quite impactful on human bodies, even the healthiest astronauts can experience different kinds of health conditions.
This is where telemedicine comes into play. It’s not like a doctor can just pop in to visit astronauts in space, so there should be other ways to treat illnesses in space. In telemedicine, medical practitioners can remotely diagnose and treat a patient with the help of communications technology. Dr. Scott Parazynski, a physician, former astronaut, and veteran of five flights as well as seven space walks, is an advocate of telemedicine. According to Dr. Parazynski, telemedicine techniques will likely have a vital role when humans eventually step foot once again on the Moon, and when we pay our first visit to Mars.
In the case of Mars, however, telemedicine may encounter a significant bump in the road. If a person on Earth communicates with another person on Mars, there will likely be a 20-minute delay. This can render telemedicine very difficult, maybe even impossible. However, Parazynski suggests that sending messages as light pulses--optical transmissions--can make the exchange quicker.
We'll better equipped for medical emergencies in space in the future.
While telemedicine can work, and physicians on Earth can guide procedures in space, how would these procedures in space work?
"Surgery in space would be very difficult," says Parazynski. "Blood wouldn't pool in the surgical wound, and you would have to manage blood loss and contamination of the wound. The air in a spacecraft is full of hair follicles and dead skin floating around. Keeping a wound clean is a real challenge up there."
It’s easier said than done, but facilitating medical procedures in space would entail a few changes and shifts in design. There would, for example, need to be a new design for the layout of lockers in space stations and other similar vessels, as well as a new design for medicine packaging to keep medicine stable.
Each day that passes is another step closer to prolonged space flight and even establishing a colony on Mars. That may be a long way off in the future, but scientists are working to prepare for and prevent certain problems before they even arise.
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