TechChallenges in Space Medicine: Addressing Astronaut Health on Mars Missions

Challenges in Space Medicine: Addressing Astronaut Health on Mars Missions

International Space Station
International Space Station
Images source: © NASA
2:28 PM EDT, March 19, 2024
The health of astronauts on long-term space missions is a challenging issue that raises numerous questions for scientists. Dr. Anna Fogtman from the European Space Agency (ESA) highlights a significant concern: the uncertain effects of medicines in space. Astronauts carry a limited medical kit, and the efficacy and safety of its contents in space have not been fully explored.
Dr. Fogtman, playing a key role in astronaut radiological protection at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany, oversees research aiming to understand space's impact on the human body. One such initiative is the Bed Rest study, where volunteers mimic the weightlessness of space by lying on a special platform for six weeks, experiencing changes like fluid shifts, muscle and bone loss, and increased intracranial pressure.
This study has revealed critical data, especially concerning Spaceflight-Associated Neuro-ocular Syndrome (SANS), which causes eye changes and vision loss not reversing after returning to Earth. These findings underscore the seriousness of potential vision loss on a mission to Mars.
The exact cause of SANS, presumed to be linked to increased intracranial pressure, remains elusive due to the impracticality of sending MRI machines into space. However, scientists are exploring solutions such as the Lower Body Negative Pressure (LBNP) suit, tested on the International Space Station (ISS), to mitigate this issue.
Physical exercise, essential for combating muscle and bone loss, has lead to the development of effective routines and equipment prototypes for future Moon missions, considering the limited space available compared to the ISS. Innovations from the Bed Rest study could also enrich the lives of Earth-bound individuals, especially the bedridden elderly and ill.
Mental health, affected by isolation, is another critical area of study. ESA collaborates with centers like the Syrius center in Moscow and Concordia station in Antarctica, investigating the psychological and physiological impacts of isolation, such as chronic hypoxia.
Addressing medical concerns for Mars missions, NASA has identified risks including urinary tract infections in women and psychological episodes in men, highlighting the need for better medical understanding and supplies in space. Despite these challenges, astronauts maintain access to psychological support and privacy on the ISS, an aspect that will need adaptation for Mars or Moon missions, where space and direct communication with Earth are limited. Innovations like holographic doctors are being tested to assist future missions.
Funding and political pressures shape ESA's scientific endeavors, as membership contributions vary. The model encourages investments to benefit contributing countries, leading to intricate diplomatic and financial dynamics in organizing space exploration research.
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