The problems surrounding sending the first humans into space were mainly technical - how to build a rocket that could shoot through the atmosphere while protecting its passengers. But now that we’ve got people up there, and for increasingly longer amounts of time, a whole new host of issues present themselves - including the effect living in space has on the bodies of our astronauts.
A new US study has found that astronauts who spend more than a month in space have an increased risk of brain and eye problems, findings reported in Radiology. The researchers used MRI to scan the bodies of 27 astronauts who had been in space for an average of 108 days, finding that a significant portion of those studied had symptoms consistent with the condition of intracranial hypertension - characterised by increased pressure on the brain.
33 per cent of the astronauts studied had excess cerebral-spinal fluid around their optic nerve - which can cause eyesight problems and head pain. 22 per cent had their eyeballs flattened to some degree, either worsening their eyesight, or (strangely) correcting it in the case of those who were short-sighted.
Dr Larry Kramer, lead author of the study, says the findings are significant for the future of space travel.
"There are major political, social and individual ramifications relative to this thought alone. Consider the possible impact on proposed manned missions to Mars or even the concept of space tourism. Can risks be eventually mitigated? Can abnormalities detected be completely reversed? The next step is confirming the findings, defining causation and working towards a solution based on solid evidence," Kramer told the Guardian.
With a mission to Mars taking up to 250 days, it’s clear the results of the study will need to be further investigated before any long-term space flights are undertaken. Along with muscle wastage and bone changes, pressure on the brain is another problem posed by extended flights in space.