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Scares in space

Did you hear the one about the astronaut who threw up in his spacesuit? Or about the cosmonaut who had to get medical treatment in space after walking into a floating glob of antifreeze? Or the astronaut who became so despondent after his orbital experiment failed that his colleagues feared he would blow the hatch on the space shuttle?

Former NASA flight surgeon Jon Clark has heard them all, and he says the adverse experiences from nearly a half-century of spaceflight hold lessons for a new generation of private-sector space fliers.

Clark, a former NASA flight surgeon, set out an overview of virtually everything that could go wrong healthwise in space this week during the International Space Development Conference in Dallas. Although he no longer works for the space agency, he's the space medicine liaison for the National Space Biomedical Research Institute and serves as an adviser for a number of space ventures, including Orbital Outfitters.

When it comes to those space ventures, Clark's bottom line is that going to space is by no means a walk in the park. "Even in well-funded government programs, where they pay a ton of money in, stuff happens," he said. (Clark knows all too well the worst that could happen: His wife, Laurel Clark, was one of the astronauts who died in the Columbia tragedy - but that's another story.)

Clark laid out a long list of "stuff" that could happen in space, with copious examples from the U.S. and Russian space programs. Only a few names were dropped, however, because Clark said many of the astronauts told their stories in confidence, either in the course of doctor-patient conferences or social conversations.  "I generally don't attribute those kinds of comments unless they specifically tell me to," Clark told me.

The wrong stuff in space includes some out-of-this-world health trends, such as a seemingly higher incidence of urinary infections ("In space, there's no gravity to help you pee," Clark explained) and kidney stones (which may have to do with calcium loss in zero-G).

There are also some weird hazards you could face only in space. For instance, during the latter years of Russia's Mir space station, a leak developed in the thermal control system, and globs of ethylene glycol liquid (yes, antifreeze) would occasionally blurp out and float around the cabin. One cosmonaut ran right into one of the globs, developing a bad case of contact dermatitis as a result. Fortunately, NASA physician/astronaut Norman Thagard was on board and could treat the cosmonaut with steroids.

The isolation and insularity of life on a spaceship brings psychological hazards as well: Clark remembered the case of a shuttle payload specialist who became so distraught over the failure of his experiment that his colleagues "thought he was going to blow the hatch." (He didn't.) Clark said the commander on Thagard's Mir mission, Russian cosmonaut Vladimir Dezhurov, went into a funk for several days when he learned that his mother had died while he was in orbit. (Russian controllers had tried to hide the truth from him for several weeks.)

You're not likely to face those kinds of problems during a suborbital spaceflight, which would last just a couple of hours at most. But Clark said even short space jaunts could bring heightened hazards. The big concern is space sickness - the type of nausea that two-thirds of astronauts feel during spaceflight. One case was so bad that an astronaut vomited right in the spacesuit, Clark said.

"It's really the G-transitions that get to you," Clark said. For suborbital flights, passengers may experience 3 G's of acceleration going up and as many as 5 G's coming down, contributing to that sinking feeling. Even a quick up-and-down could leave you vulnerable to Earth readaptation syndrome, the sense that you've lost your "land legs."

"After short-duration flights, it's not unexpected for people to be unable to get out" of their spaceship, Clark said.

Even if you don't get literally sick to your stomach, you may feel a less dramatic motion-sickness effect known as sopite syndrome, characterized by lethargy, mental dullness and disorientation. Many astronauts have noticed this effect - which they call "mental viscosity" or "the space stupids." (Sopite syndrome is also thought to be what's behind rocking a baby to sleep, as well as virtual-reality cybersickness and simulator syndrome.)

"This sopite syndrome could occur in suborbital flights," Clark said. And that would be a bummer for people who have paid $200,000 or more for what they hoped would be the ride of a lifetime.

When those paying passengers line up for spaceflights, they'll have to sign an informed-consent form required by the Federal Aviation Administration. To be truly informed, they'll have to know a little something about spaceflight in general as well as about the safety record of the particular spaceship they're boarding, Clark said. And that means a half-century of spaceflight medical study - including the wrong stuff - will have to be compressed into a digestible form. 

"I don't think people truly have an understanding of the risks involved," Clark said.

So how do you prepare for a spaceflight? How do you know how the ups-and-downs will feel? Virgin Galactic, the suborbital space tourism venture backed by British billionaire Richard Branson, is already setting up a medical information and screening system to get its first fliers ready to launch.

Virgin Galactic is on the verge of offering centrifuge spins to its customers as a way of acclimating them to the accelerations they'll face during spaceflight (and finding out whether they can actually take the G's). During the ISDC meeting, the company's vice president of operations, Alex Tai, told me he wasn't quite ready to reveal where the centrifuge sessions would be offered - but he said the space medical services would be handled through a collaboration.

It's worth noting that Virgin Galactic is already working on medical issues with Wyle Laboratories, which provides medical services for NASA and operates a commercial spaceflight training facility (including a centrifuge) in San Antonio. Coincidentally, Wyle just announced the establishment of a "collaborative space medicine program." Stay tuned. ...

Earlier posts from the ISDC: Mars drama takes new turns ... Space diving and other coming attractions in space ... Space tourism gets down-to-earth ... Dude, where's my spaceship?