Why and How Do Astronauts Get Sick in Space? | Space

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Apollo 7 sent a trio of astronauts into space in 1968, making it the first successful crewed NASA mission. But about 15 hours into the flight, astronaut Wally Schirra began developing the symptoms of a bad head cold, with the rest of his team following suit. Balancing a fog of symptoms, including sniffles and congestion, on top of their heavy workload was a recipe for misery.

Considering the extensive training and screening astronauts go through to ensure they’re in optimal health for missions, it may seem ironic that they’re also more likely to get sick while in space. Luckily, researchers are working hard to understand the ways and reasons why astronauts get sick, as well as how to mitigate those risks for present and future space exploration.

What Happens in Outer Space?

Different kinds of clinical events manifest in space, according to NASA immunologist Brian Crucian. There are colds, sore throats, abnormal allergies and even skin rashes – an unexpected outcome in otherwise healthy individuals.

Scientists at NASA’s Human Research Program (HRP), in the Johnson Space Center located in Houston, are investigating the reasons why organ functions shift in space and the root cause behind these symptoms.

What Are the Side Effects of Being in Space?

Among the hazards of spaceflight is cosmic radiation, microgravity and psychological isolation, and they come with mean side effects. For example, human bodies evolved in an environment of constant gravitational force. Take that away in space, and many of the stressors we’re working against daily are gone. This means the heart works less hard, and blood is no longer pulled toward the bottom of our bodies.

Astronauts then experience what’s akin to aging on Earth. Muscles atrophy, as do bones. Radiation exposes astronauts to the risk of developing cancer later. In orbit, sunrises and sunsets fly by about 15 times, so there’s no clear way of maintaining usual circadian rhythms without intervention.

That’s not to…

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