A Medical Opinion – so, what happens to your characters in space?

Hi everybody! I’m Stella, a medical student with a passion for writing who’s tired of authors getting things wrong. In this column I hope to answer medical queries of YWS members so that they can write more convincing injuries and illnesses in their novels. If you have a query, you can leave it at http://www.youngwriterssociety.com/viewtopic.php?f=12&t=99843 and I’ll try and get around to it.

A disclaimer before we get started – I don’t want to replace the need for research, I hope to give you some basic information to get you started but Google is still your best friend. Secondly, I am still just a student, I’m bound to get things wrong so don’t take my word for granted. Lastly, it goes without saying, don’t take any of the information here as actual medical advice, this is all for the sake of fiction!

My very first question comes from Meshugenah – she and PenguinAttack are interested in the effects of space travel on the human body. To be honest, I wasn’t so sure myself since it’s rare that we have an astronaut in our teaching hospital, but Wikipedia helped me on this one!

The thing is, our bodies are adapted perfectly to living on Earth. We’re used to the pressure here (which is why we get sick if we go to too high an altitude or dive too deep) and we’re used to the gravity of earth. If you’re out in space without a space suit, the vacuum and the lack of oxygen mean you lose consciousness and die pretty quickly. If you’re in a suit, but returning to the pressurised ship, you can get what’s called “decompression illness” which is what deep sea divers get (nobody in NASA has ever actually had this, I’m not sure about other space programmes). This is a bit complicated to explain, but essentially the gases dissolved in your blood turn into bubbles. You have treat the person with 100% oxygen and put them in a ‘repressurisation chamber’ until they’re back to normal.

These days, the biggest threat to an astronaut’s health is weightlessness. It may sound fun, but weightlessness causes a loss of muscle mass and osteopenia or a loss of bone density. When astronauts get back to earth they can find that objects are very heavy and they’ve lost a lot of muscle on their backs and legs and have to build that back up again to walk properly. Which doesn’t sound too serious, right? I mean, bones break all the time and surely you can just go the gym and build those muscles back up? Just remember that the heart is a muscle too.

Weightlessness also causes a redistribution of the fluid in your body. Usually there’s a certain percentage in your plasma – the liquid (non-cellular) part of your blood – but this starts getting taken into cells instead, and plasma volume goes down (so essentially, you have less blood to be pumped around). These can add together to cause cardiovascular problems, particularly cardiac arrhythmias  which is a fancy word to mean that your heart doesn’t beat quite the way it should. Arrhythmias affect people on earth too so we know how to treat them easily enough.

But if you’re writing a sci-fi world where space travel is the norm, chances are that they’ve created some sort of artificial gravity. So weightlessness isn’t as much as a problem anymore. That doesn’t mean you get off scotch-free though! Firstly – can you imagine that you get motion sick on spaceships? Because you do. If someone is prone to motion sickness on Earth you can bet your bottom dollar they’ll have motion sickness on spaceflights too. It’s not pretty, it’s not glamourous and maybe it’s just the kind of thing we need more of in science fiction. Maybe other common travel problems – like deep vein thrombosis – should be considered.

The final thing I want to mention is that there are a lot of psychological symptoms associated with space travel. There’s a lot of sleep disorders, because there’s no day/night cycle in space and people find it very hard to get the sleep that they need. And people find it difficult to be away from home for so long, especially if you’re missing major life events.

Returning to earth, people often find Earth’s gravity bemusing, because everything seems so much heavier. Soviet cosmonauts described “asthenisation”, although Americans weree keen to laugh at this idea in the days of the Space Race. Symptoms include a loss of appetite, fatigue and irritability. But whether this is to do with being in space for so long or to do with the overachievement of becoming an astronaut and knowing that was the highlight of your life is hard to say.

Last of all, I wanted to tell you all – did you know that having returned from the moon, Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were all put in quarantine? We didn’t know enough about the moon to know there’d be no diseases there at the time. So if your characters are going to uncharted territory – what precautions await them on their return?

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3 Responses

  1. Lava says:

    Ooh, I didn’t know they were put in quarantine.
    But also, we can consider the fact that alien ‘life form’ is of a completely different form than what we see here.

  2. Stella says:

    Yes yes yes, and that’s something I always think about! I mean, even the most basic building blocks – that we are carbon based life forms, that we use ATP as an energy source – what if even those things are just *totally* different? What if aliens don’t use oxygen like we do, they use nitrogen or some other gas? I actually think about that sort of thing quite a lot, but it isn’t really my area of expertise! It’s such a cool, insane concept though!

    • Lava says:

      Yes! I read about alien stuff — and I’m always wondering what if there’s a replicating life form that we can’t see/understand yet. Given that there might be completely different systems outside of earth.

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