What Happens When an Astronaut Gets Sick in Space?

NASA/Getty Images
NASA/Getty Images

Astronauts are among the fittest and healthiest people in the world. They're rigorously trained, vetted, and quarantined before they’re allowed up in space—and yet, despite all those precautions, they do sometimes get sick. Apollo 13's Fred Haise, for example, had to deal with a painful kidney infection during the dangerous mission that gave us the phrase "Houston, we have a problem," and one-time astronaut Jake Garn, a Utah senator, got so motion-sick during a 1985 Discovery mission that astronauts now rate their nausea levels on the Garn Scale. And because space missions are on a strict schedule planned far in advance, sick astronauts on a space mission can't just pop down to Earth to see a doctor.

But when astronauts fall ill, they don't have to worry—NASA and other space agencies that have missions aboard the ISS are prepared.

SPACE ADAPTATION SICKNESS

Zero gravity can change a lot of normal bodily functions. One effect it has is to make the fluids inside the body float, which confuses the inner ears and makes them unable to tell up from down. This causes space adaptation syndrome (SAS), a common illness that's kind of like seasickness in space. Motion sickness, the most frequently reported ailment, is a subset of SAS; it affects 67 to 75 percent of astronauts.

It takes a few days for astronauts' bodies to adjust to weightlessness, during which they may experience symptoms ranging from headaches to vomiting. And though it might seem like a nightmare to deal with puke, NASA has a system: Astronauts carry special barf bags with attached face wipes and Ziploc seals that they can use during launch or while in orbit if they get the urge to hurl. Once used, the bags are tossed in the trash.

COLDS AND SNIFFLES

Because astronauts are quarantined before spaceflight, the likelihood of being exposed to a pathogen in space is rare. But if an astronaut does come down with the sniffles, they can expect an Earth cold on steroids: Sinuses don't drain in zero gravity, so congested astronauts feel even stuffier than we do here on the ground. To make matters worse, germs seem to thrive in weightless environments—pathogens can develop “thicker cell walls, greater resistance to antimicrobial agents and a greater ability to form so-called biofilms that cling to surfaces” in zero gravity, according to TIME.

Luckily, colds and even the flu tend to go away on their own, even in space—so astronauts just need to wait it out.

BUMPS, BRUISES, AND OTHER MINOR INJURIES

Astronauts floating around in zero gravity have a tendency to bump into things, which can sometimes cause an injury. When they want to check on a wound, abrasion, or another condition, they place a phone call to a physician on the ground, who will advise them what to do.

“We get calls for bumps, and bruises, and little lacerations or cuts,” Shannan Moynihan, deputy chief of space and occupational medicine at the NASA Johnson Space Center, said at a health tech conference in March 2018. “A typical scenario might be a newbie, somebody who just got up there, trying to Superman through a hatch and not quite making it. So we get a call for a little bump on the forehead and we help them figure out how to take care of that.”

A doctor on Earth can walk an astronaut through how to use and read a modified ultrasound machine on the ISS, for example, or give them additional training in response to a specific medical condition occurring on board. That happened with spaceflight-associated neuro-ocular syndrome, a condition in which ISS astronauts developed visual and structural changes in their eyes during space missions. They were subsequently trained to conduct a series of eye tests on themselves.

FROM EVACUATION TO SURGERY

If there’s anything too serious to deal with on board, astronauts can get back to Earth via the the Soyuz spacecraft that brought them to space—there’s always one docked at the ISS in case of emergency. Medical evacuation has only happened once, in 1986, when a Soviet astronaut named Vladimir Vasyutin had to leave the Salyut-7 Orbital Lab [PDF] because of a prostate infection. His trip back to Earth took about six hours; these days, astronauts can land in less than three and a half.

In the case of a true medical emergency—one that requires surgery—evacuation to Earth is currently the only way for astronauts to get treatment. Surgery in zero gravity isn't yet possible; blood would float straight out of a wound and contaminate the whole cabin. As deep space travel gets more feasible, however, it’s possible that one day a space O.R. might be necessary, and technology is being developed to make potential surgeries easier and cleaner. Scientists are testing a device called the aqueous immersion surgical system (AISS), a saline filled dome that, when placed over a wound, could keep blood and bodily fluids in place.

As humanity pushes further into deep space, medical technology will need to become even more sophisticated. When it comes to deep space missions, NASA representative Stephanie Schierholz tells Mental Floss, “NASA is specifically looking at five hazards of human space travel: space radiation, isolation and confinement, distance from Earth, gravity fields (or lack thereof), and hostile/closed environments that pose the greatest risks to the human mind and body in space.”

Currently, NASA is working on several research and development projects to address the hazards posed by deep space travel, including no-drill dentistry and emergency wound closure, which would need to be usable by astronauts with no formal medical or dental training. And because not all potential illness is physical, Mars settlement simulation projects are helping researchers understand what the psychological, emotional, and social effects of long-term isolation might be on astronauts.

Who Has Jurisdiction for Crimes Committed in Space?

iStock/nedelcupaul
iStock/nedelcupaul

It's 2050. Humans have mastered commercial space travel. Hundreds of people pay thousands of dollars to be sent into orbit in a spaceship. Maybe some decide to help colonize Mars.

Then, trouble. A jilted spouse. A smuggled firearm. Perhaps a struggle followed by suffocation. A space traveler is found dead on board a ship or on the Red Planet. Who has jurisdiction over such crimes? Is there such a thing as a cosmic Hercule Poirot? Could someone fall through the cracks and get away with space murder?

To date, no one has been victim of a space crime. But because no one nation can lay claim to ownership of space, the idea of a criminal offense committed outside of our atmosphere is something people have already given some thought to.

According to NASA engineer and instructor Robert Frost, the language of law for galactic felonies would be the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. In Article VIII of the treaty, nations engaging in space exploration agree that they will bear responsibility for the actions of personnel aboard their craft. In other words, if a privatized shuttle from China sees a fight break out among crew members, leaving one injured, China would be the entity responsible for handling legal repercussions.

That varies slightly with the International Space Station, or ISS, which is home to a number of personnel from different nations. In the case of the ISS, an intergovernmental agreement signed in 1998 mandates that the home country of the offender will handle any investigation or prosecution. If the victim is a national of another country, that country will have the right to inquire as to the criminal status of the offender and seek to have jurisdiction over the matter if they feel justice isn't being meted out.

In most cases, space crime sprees would be treated the same as if an offender was traveling in a foreign country or in international waters. If you're a U.S. citizen and decide to bludgeon someone at sea or on the Moon, the various international agreements and national laws would determine how you get prosecuted. (Assuming, of course, you returned to Earth to answer the charges.)

Space crimes pose another intriguing wrinkle. In terra firma investigations, authorities can secure crime scenes, question witnesses, and preserve evidence. Aboard a spaceship or on a distant planet, these procedures would be difficult to perform, and almost impossible to do in a timely fashion. Even if a criminal investigator is on Mars, low gravity will affect blood spatter and bodies may even decay at a different rate than they do on Earth. While an American may be found liable for murder, proving it was malicious and not the result of the dangerous environment would give any prosecutor a headache. A defense attorney, on the other hand, would have a field day questioning defective spacesuits or toxic exposure to strange space chemicals.

Then again, prosecutors may not have to concern themselves with evidence. Thanks to airlocks and restrictive suits, the movement of space travelers is highly monitored. It would be hard to make any plausible deniability about one's whereabouts.

The closest thing to space crime that law enforcement has yet encountered may be crimes committed in Antarctica, the frigid and isolated continent that's unaffiliated with any country but operates under the Antarctic Treaty signed by 54 nations. The agreement declares that the suspect is likely under their home country's jurisdiction. In some cases, the country owning the research station where the alleged crime took place steps in. In 2018, a Russian researcher at Bellingshausen Station on King George Island went after his victim with a knife in the station's dining room. He was charged in Russia, though reports indicate the case has since been dropped. And in 2000, an Australian astrophysicist suspected of being fatally poisoned had an autopsy performed in New Zealand. The exam showed he had ingested methanol, but it remains unknown whether he did so accidentally or whether someone gave it to him. New Zealand police were unable to determine the source.

A person committing murder in space would certainly be held responsible. But whether they'd ever be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt remains very much up in—and beyond—the air.

This Cool T-Shirt Shows Every Object Brought on the Apollo 11 Mission

Fringe Focus
Fringe Focus

NASA launched the Apollo 11 mission on July 16, 1969, ending the space race and beginning a new era of international space exploration. Just in time for the mission's 50th anniversary this year, Fringe Focus is selling a t-shirt that displays every item the Apollo 11 astronauts brought with them to the Moon.

The design, by artist Rob Loukotka, features some of the iconic objects from the mission, such as a space suit and helmet, as well as the cargo that never made it to primetime. Detailed illustrations of freeze-dried meals, toiletries, and maintenance kits are included on the shirt. The artist looked at 200 objects and chose to represent some similar items with one drawing, ending up with 69 pictures in total.

The unisex shirt is made from lightweight cotton, and comes in seven sizes ranging from small to 4XL. It's available in black heather or heather midnight navy for $29.

If you really like the design, the artwork is available in other forms. The same illustration has also been made into poster with captions indicating which pictures represent multiple items of a similar nature.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER