NASA's New Space Sleeping Bags Help Save Astronauts From 'Squishy Eyes'

And they could prove crucial on Mars.
Chris Young

Perfect 20/20 vision, one of the attributes a person requires to become a certified astronaut, is unfortunately degraded the longer they actually spend in space.

In a bid to tackle this problem, a team of researchers from UT Southwestern Medical Center developed a sleeping bag, in collaboration with NASA, that helps prevent eyesight degradation in space, a BBC report explains.

NASA has reported that over half of the astronauts it has sent up to the International Space Station (ISS) for more than six months have developed eyesight problems. Perhaps the most extreme example is astronaut John Philips who launched to the ISS in 2015 with 20/20 vision and returned with 20/100 vision.

With NASA and other space organizations planning long missions to Mars for the 2030s, this vision impairment problem could become an obstacle for missions that will cost billions of dollars. "It would be a disaster if astronauts had such severe impairments that they couldn't see what they're doing and it compromised the mission," lead researcher Dr. Benjamin Levine explained to the BBC.

Developing sleeping bags for Mars

When people sleep, it is normal for fluids to accumulate in their heads. This isn't an issue on Earth though because gravity will pull those fluids back down into the body once the person gets out of bed. 

In the zero-gravity of space, fluid concentrates in the head for long periods, which applies pressure and slightly flattens a person's eyeballs, leading to vision impairment. The disorder even has a name: spaceflight-associated neuro-ocular syndrome, or SANS. Today, ISS astronauts go to bed in sleep pods, where they are strapped in, as described in the video above.

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Now, the researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center collaborated with outdoor gear manufacturer REI to produce a sleeping bag that encloses the lower body into a suction device that draws fluids towards the feet and away from the head. Initial tests have provided positive results, and the team is continuing to investigate the effects of SANS and how their new sleeping bag technology can be best applied and deployed to the ISS. Once the technology does eventually make it to the ISS, it will essentially act as a test program for sleeping bags that will eventually help maintain a strong vision for the first humans to make it to Mars.

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