From the imagination of Ray Bradbury to the front pages of our newspapers, the prospect of traversing vast reaches of space and seeing Mars firsthand has long inhabited and excited the idealistic public consciousness. However, our recent talk with psychiatrist Mathias Basner revealed that the odyssey comes with a number of physiological costs. Here are some of the most prominent known bodily effects of long-term space travel:
1. “Puffy Face Syndrome”
On earth, the heart works hard to pump blood upwards to the top half of your body – our force of gravity requires this effort. In space, gravity is weaker, but the heart takes a while to adjust. As a result, astronauts develop a slightly enlarged upper torso and head due to the excess of blood being pumped upwards. Conversely, legs become thinner and weaker. As the astronaut’s veins bulge, the body attempts to compensate by releasing more fluids, resulting in loss of essential electrolytes and calcium. This loss of fluid contributes to significant bone loss over the course of a long trip.
2. Increase in Height
An additional side effect of lower gravity: space travel affects the spinal column. With relatively less compression on the spine, astronauts experience a slight separation of vertebrae. This separation results in a growth spurt of about two inches.
On long-term space journeys, space and weight is precious. As a result, water is stored and used sparingly. For astronauts, showers are a rare occurrence – they normally “bathe” by using hygienic towels. Experienced astronauts have attested to a regularly wide buffer zone kept between astronauts; sanity is preserved and nostrils appeased by avoiding each other’s personal space and strong body odor.
4. Radiation Poisoning
Prolonged exposure and proximity to the sun does not bode well for DNA – the sun emits powerful radiation with the strong potential to mutate genetic material. Astronauts often speak of flashes of light behind closed eyelids - unseen radiation waves rippling through their body. One dose of solar radiation is equivalent to hundreds of chest x-rays, and a longer journey to Mars would increase the risk exponentially. As a precaution, astronauts have solar storm shelters built within the spacecraft that are impervious to radiation.
5. Perception of Time
On average, astronauts near the Earth see the sun rise and set every ninety minutes. This is jarring for the body’s Circadian Rhythm, and has the potential to disrupt sleeping and eating patterns. In addition, this pattern of light exposure is psychologically disorienting – perception of time itself can be altered.
Here's a video that continues to unpack the physiological effects of space travel: