Unveiling the Health Effects of Space Travel on Tourists

New studies reveal how the human body reacts and recovers after short-term space travel, shedding light on the impact of space tourism on health.

Published June 13, 2024 - 00:06am

4 minutes read
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How bad for your health is space travel? Answering this question will be crucial not just for astronauts aiming to go to Mars, but for a booming space tourism industry planning to blast anyone who can afford it into orbit.

In what was billed as the most comprehensive look yet at the health effects of space, dozens of papers were published on Tuesday using new data from four SpaceX tourists onboard the first all-civilian orbital flight in 2021.

Researchers from more than 100 institutions across the world sifted through the data to demonstrate that human bodies change in a variety of ways once they reach space - but most go back to normal within months of returning to Earth.

Our bodies are put under a huge amount of stress while in space, from being blasted with radiation to the disorientating effect of weightlessness. By studying astronauts, researchers have known for decades that space flight can cause health issues such as loss of bone mass, as well as heart, eyesight and kidney problems.

Fewer than 700 people have ever traveled into space, meaning that the sample size is small - and governments can be reticent when it comes to sharing all their findings. However, the four American tourists who spent three days in space during the Inspiration4 mission were happy to see their data made public. The early results, which were compared to 64 other astronauts, were published in Nature journals on Tuesday.

When people are in space, they undergo changes to their blood, heart, skin, proteins, kidneys, genes, mitochondria, telomeres, cytokines and other health indicators, the researchers found. But around 95 percent of their health markers returned to their previous level within three months. The 'big take-home' message is that people mostly make a rapid recovery after space flight, said one of the main study authors, Christopher Mason from Weill Cornell Medicine.

Mason told journalists he hoped the 'most in-depth examination we've ever had of a crew' would help scientists understand what drugs or measures will be needed in the future to help protect people blasting off to space. The Inspiration4 mission, financed by its billionaire captain Jared Isaacman, had the stated goal of demonstrating that space is accessible to people who have not spent years training for the feat. To do so, the four civilian astronauts received a huge number of medical tests.

'I love my space scar,' nurse Hayley Arceneaux said of the lingering mark from a skin biopsy. She was just 29 when she went into space. One study found that the telomeres - caps similar to those on shoelaces which protect the ends of chromosomes from fraying - of all four subjects dramatically lengthened when they arrived in space. But their telomeres all shrunk back to near their original length within months of them returning to Earth. Because telomeres also lengthen as people age, finding a way to address this problem could help 'us mere Earthlings' in the never-ending fight against aging, said Colorado State University's Susan Bailey. It even could lead to anti-aging products such as 'telomerase-infused face cream,' the study author speculated.

New research suggests space tourists experience some of the same physical changes as astronauts who spend months in orbit. Once space passengers returned to Earth, these modifications largely returned to normal. A molecular-level study on the health impacts of space travel examined four space passengers. Researchers claimed the findings clarify how non-astronauts adapt to weightlessness and space radiation.

Susan Bailey, a radiation expert at Colorado State University, said a three-day chartered flight in 2021 allowed researchers to study how rapidly the body adjusts to spaceflight. The four SpaceX Inspiration4 passengers took blood, saliva, skin, and other samples in orbit. Researchers identified extensive cell and immune system alterations in the samples. Most of these changes stabilized in the months after the four returned home, and the researchers identified no health risks from short-term spaceflight.

Dr. Guy Trudel, from the Faculty of Medicine, echoed these sentiments, noting how their findings are crucial for both future space missions and terrestrial health applications. Eliah Overbey and others at Weill Cornell Medicine have developed a new biomarker tool dubbed the Space Omics and Medical Atlas (SOMA). This repository is designed to profile the biomedical shifts occurring during space travel, which could immensely benefit astronauts' health and those with similar conditions on Earth.

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