Space is incredibly dangerous, in case you didn’t know. Harmful radiation, bitter cold, low pressure, no air, and no gravity make for a very difficult environment to survive in. Even though a space capsule is pressurized with breathable air, protected with radiation shields, and warmed to a comfortable temperature, the effects of microgravity are still damaging to the human body. We know that astronauts lose bone mass rapidly, have to exercise to keep their muscles active, but what other effects does microgravity have on the body?
For one, without gravity to clear your sinuses, they get a bit clogged in space. This affects the ability to taste food, and so a lot of astronaut food is bland and not very flavourful. Most astronauts prefer spicy food because it helps clear the sinuses and provides a lot of flavor to rehydrated food.
A recent study of astronauts’ medical records shows that the most common medications are skin creams and sleeping pills. It seems insomnia and skin rashes are common in space. I understand the insomnia from a comfort point of view, since the astronauts are effectively sleeping while in free fall. Not only that but when not using their muscles as much they don’t use as much energy during the day and only need to sleep 4 hours per night. Another contributing factor might be the lack of day and night cycles, since the ISS orbits the Earth in 45 minutes. All of these factors combined would make it tough for an astronaut to get through their full sleep cycle to feel refreshed.
The skin rash thing is a bit surprising to me, though I suppose a confined space with potentially dry air would lead to those kinds of issues. Maybe the International Space Station is an itchy place to be. This information is crucial for long-duration space missions, and gives mission planners an idea of what an astronaut will need (and what they won’t) on a trip to Mars.
“We hope that this study will help NASA to prepare for astronauts’ medical needs on long-duration spaceflight missions,” said Virginia E. Wotring, Ph.D., a researcher involved in the work from the Division of Space Life Sciences at Universities Space Research Association in Houston, Texas. “Knowing what medications to pack is especially important before starting an exploration mission that may last three years.”