Challenges Faced by Astronauts in Space
When you watch a sci-fi movie such as the Martian and Gravity, it makes you feel that the astronauts are completely safe inside their spacesuit. Watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin hopping on the moon and coming back safely on the Earth makes us feel that space is benign and space travel is really a cool business. The truth is completely different: space is a hostile place and space travel is fraught with dangers. Travelling in space is very risky and astronauts deserve more adulation and fame than they get. Spacefarers are exposed to many types of risks; surviving in space is one of the biggest challenges in sending humans to long distances in space. Humans have evolved to survive in the Jungle and not in space.
Following are the main risks face by astronauts in space.
Absence of Gravity
Pictures of astronauts inside their spaceships, swimming and enjoying the weightlessness is what comes to mind and looks cool, but surviving in zero gravity has challenges.
Human ears not only help hear, they help in maintaining the body balance also. In zero gravity, the ears are not able to help orient the body. Also, as the gravity plummets, the bodily fluids start to redistribute. This makes the face puff up and the eyeballs distort.
The other problem in living in zero gravity for a long time causes the skeleton to loose calcium and makes it brittle. Muscles, which support the spine and help in holding the body upright, deteriorate. The heart becomes weaker because it is not required to pump the blood upwards.
It does not mean that the human body will disintegrate completely in long distance space travel; despite all the weaknesses and fragility, the human body is supple in adapting to its surroundings. The real problem occurs when the astronaut returns back to earth or lands on some other planet or some moon.
A solution to this problem is creating artificial gravity. Some part of spaceship can be rotated in order to create centripetal force and thus gravity. This was shown in the Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: a space odyssey. The problem is making such a spacecraft to work in zero gravity is extremely difficult. Another solution is to make mini-centrifuges. One astronaut at a time can get on the centrifuge and experience gravity. This idea of providing gravity in small doses will help the human body not deteriorate with time.
A British scientist named David Green and his colleagues at king’s college, London are working with scientists at MIT and European Space Agency on another solution: gravity loading countermeasure skin suit. Such a suit will provide graded tension between the feet and shoulders. It will also prevent stretching of spine and muscles.
Earth’s atmosphere protects its inhabitants from the bombardment of high energy radiation. Exposure to cosmic rays for substantial amount of time is so fatal that it can cause mutations of the DNA resulting into various genetic diseases including Cancer. It can also turn the lenses of the eyes opaque. It is not known what irreversible damage these rays can cause to immune system and neurons.
This radiation can be shielded but it is neither economically viable nor physically possible as then the spaceship would be massive in size. Medicines can be made which can help fight effects of radiation.
There is another solution to save the astronauts from radiation but it is quite tricky - the idea is to send genetically modified astronauts aboard.
Living on an International Space Station (ISS) may cause mental illness, the degree of which can vary from individual to individual. An astronaut lives under great stress in an ISS: There is constant threat of anything going wrong. If only one person is living up there, he may breakdown due to loneliness, and if there are two or more, there can be strain in their relationships and under such hostile conditions a little tension can turn into craziness.
Whatever be the difficulties, scientists will find solutions and one day astronauts will fearlessly roam in the space. The human brain has successfully come over many extremely difficult problems and the future is not too far when we will land on Mars and make another giant leap.