Return to Earth: The Challenges That Astronauts Face Both in Space and When They Return Home
Space is the place. From a young age, there was probably some part of you that always dreamed of venturing off into the great beyond in one of NASA’s rockets or perhaps in something a little more commercial. Maybe you even wanted to become an astronaut.
Though the experiences and adventures tied to being an astronaut are quite literally out-of-this-world, there are a host of challenges both physical and psychological that come with being an astronaut.
Think about it. Aside from the rigorous training astronauts go through to prepare for the trip, these spacemen are exposed to a host of environmental factors while crammed in a rather small space. For a lot of astronauts, the hardest challenge for them is not the mission to space, but the journey home.
The Challenges of Being an Astronaut
A film that has garnered a lot of attention and academy buzz, the Noah Hawley film Lucy in the Sky aims to tackle this subject this year when it hits the big screen. Loosely based on the real-life story of on the real-world case of NASA astronaut and US Naval officer Lisa Nowak, the story follows a female astronaut who just has returned to earth.
After a transcendent experience during a mission to space, Lucy begins to lose touch with reality in a world that now seems too small.
Just like the film, today we are going to explore the challenges that astronauts face: the physical, the emotional, and psychological.
How Space Affects the Body
The lack of gravity is your greatest ally and enemy when exposed to zero gravity over long periods of time.
"You feel the physiological changes when you get to space and you are beginning to feel that your body and brain think you don’t need your legs anymore”, says Doug Wheelock, a NASA astronaut who has spent 178 days in space over the course of two mission.
When you are here on earth, your bones and muscles work hard to keep you just standing still. Without the downward force of gravity, the body works considerably less, causing muscle deterioration and loss of bone density.
In fact, according to NASA, just one month in space can cause the loss of as much bone mass as a postmenopausal woman does in a year, causing a large decrease in calcium levels in the blood, which in turn can lead to a host of health issues.
One way to slow down this process is through exercising in space. According to NASA, astronauts workout on average 2 hours a day. Think of films like Kubrick's 2001, Space Odyssey. Though we are years away from technology shown in the film, the importance of staying fit cannot be understated.
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield talked about his physical regimen during a five-month stint in space as the commander of the ISS with the Los Angeles Times.
"I used the resistance exercise device on the ISS for an hour every day the entire time I was there," he said.
"It looks like a universal gym. It has big pistons that have a vacuum on them. The beauty of it is that it is a consistent resistance the whole way through. You can do squats, bench press, overhead lifts, calf raises, curls and sit-ups."
Vision Loss and Cosmic Radiation
So, if you are working out three hours a day on your space station and think you are in the clear, you’re not. While on Earth the fluids throughout your body are constantly moving with gravity pushing these fluids down into your legs.
However, while in space, these fluids float into your head, which can give the appearance of looking chubby. Yet, this fluidic drift can be dangerous causing serious conditions including pressure on the optic nerve, which can affect vision.
Here on Earth, you are protected from good amount radiation, in space not so much. Though there is artificial shielding on places like the ISS, it does not protect from all radiation types, leaving astronauts more susceptible to cancer and other long-term health risks.
The Mental Strain of Being in Space
Though they are extreme fictional cases, films like The Martian and "Moon" both highlight the mental fortitude needed for missions in space. Astronauts over long periods of time are usually subjected to the same tasks everyday which can be daunting. However, the mental challenges do not end there.
As mentioned by NASA, “The types of problems you may encounter are a decline in mood, cognition, morale, or interpersonal interaction. You could also develop a sleep disorder because your circadian rhythm might be thrown off due to the 38 extra minutes each day on Mars, or by a small, noisy environment, or the stress of prolonged isolation and confinement.”
Issues like depression and fatigue are sometimes inevitable. While a lack of fresh food and deficiency in nutrition, “may further contribute to physiological and cognitive decrements.” All the things you take for granted from the food, to routines, to simple smells are all part of the mental strain of being in space.
"Your sense of smell and taste are dulled in space. I craved the aroma of leaves and grass and flowers and trees," says Wheelock. "These things are not present on the space station. When you get back to Earth they are literally intoxicating."
Landing Back Home
Coming back home after an extended trip in space can be difficult not just for your body but for the mental state too. Depending on the duration of the trip, it can take on average anywhere from 45-days to a couple of months, to even a year, for people to readjust to being back on planet earth.
Due to the effects of microgravity, astronauts usually go through a period of physical therapy as their bodies need to readjust to the gravity on Earth. Astronauts are even mentally evaluated after they return, something that NASA takes very seriously.
Traveling in space is a momentous event and shapes the astronauts for the rest of their life. As stated by Leroy Chiao, a NASA astronaut from 1990-2005, “What do you think about during a long flight? Spaceflight is a life-changing event. I thought a lot about my life on Earth. I gained a new perspective.”
“Do I miss space? Sometimes, a little bit. After each short space shuttle flight, I couldn't wait to go back up. But, after my long flight, it was like eating a big, satisfying meal. Ten years later, I am still satisfied. But, I suspect that after not too much longer, I will again start to get hungry.”
The film "Lucy in the Sky" should be interesting as it gives both a story and visual insight into some of the challenges astronauts face when they return to earth. Would you be willing to become an astronaut? Leave your comments below.