Adverse Effects of Weightlessness

The entire following text is extracted from a paper by Dr. Theodore W. Hall entitled "Artificial Gravity and the Architecture of Orbital Habitats", and is Copyright © 1997 by Theodore W. Hall, All Rights Reserved. Reprinted by PERMANENT with permission. (The formatting is somewhat different due to limitations of the HTML web programming language.)

It is ironic that, having gone to great expense to escape Earth gravity, it may be necessary to incur the additional expense of simulating gravity in orbit. Before opting for artificial gravity, it is worth reviewing the consequences of long-term exposure to weightlessness.

  1. fluid redistribution: Bodily fluids shift from the lower extremities toward the head. This precipitates many of the problems described below [1, 2].

  2. fluid loss: The brain interprets the increase of fluid in the cephalic area as an increase in total fluid volume. In response, it activates excretory mechanisms. This compounds calcium loss and bone demineralization. Blood volume may decrease by 10 percent, which contributes to cardiovascular deconditioning. Space crew members must beware of dehydration [1, 3].

  3. electrolyte imbalances: Changes in fluid distribution lead to imbalances in potassium and sodium and disturb the autonomic regulatory system [2, 3].

  4. cardiovascular changes: An increase of fluid in the thoracic area leads initially to increases in left ventricular volume and cardiac output. As the body seeks a new equilibrium, fluid is excreted, the left ventricle shrinks and cardiac output decreases. Upon return to gravity, fluid is pulled back into the lower extremities and cardiac output falls to subnormal levels. It may take several weeks for fluid volume, peripheral resistance, cardiac size and cardiac output to return to normal [3, 4, 5].

  5. red blood cell loss: Blood samples taken before and after American and Soviet flights have indicated a loss of as much as 0.5 liters of red blood cells. Scientists are investigating the possibility that weightlessness causes a change in splenic function that results in premature destruction of red blood cells. In animal studies there is some evidence of loss through microhemorrhages in muscle tissue as well [5, 6].

  6. muscle damage: Muscles atrophy from lack of use. Contractile proteins are lost and tissue shrinks. Muscle loss may be accompanied by a change in muscle type: rats exposed to weightlessness show an increase in the amount of "fast-twitch" white fiber relative to the bulkier "slow-twitch" red fiber. In 1987, rats exposed to 12.5 days of weightlessness showed a loss of 40 percent of their muscle mass and "serious damage" in 4 to 7 percent of their muscle fibers. The affected fibers were swollen and had been invaded by white blood cells. Blood vessels had broken and red blood cells had entered the muscle. Half the muscles had damaged nerve endings. The damage may have resulted from factors other than simple disuse, in particular: stress, poor nutrition, and reduced circulation -- all of which are compounded by weightlessness; and radiation exposure -- which is independent of weightlessness. There is concern that damaged blood supply to muscle may adversely affect the blood supply to bone as well [4, 5, 6, 7].

  7. bone damage: Bone tissue is deposited where needed and resorbed where not needed. This process is regulated by the piezoelectric behavior of bone tissue under stress. Because the mechanical demands on bones are greatly reduced in micro gravity, they essentially dissolve. While cortical bone may regenerate, loss of trabecular bone may be irreversible. Diet and exercise have been only partially effective in reducing the damage. Short periods of high-load strength training may be more effective than long endurance exercise on the treadmills and bicycles commonly used in orbit. Evidence suggests that the loss occurs primarily in the weight-bearing bones of the legs and spine. Non-weight-bearing bones, such as the skull and fingers, do not seem to be affected [1,2,3,4,5,6,8,9,10,11,12,13, 14,15].

  8. hypercalcemia: Fluid loss and bone demineralization conspire to increase the concentration of calcium in the blood, with a consequent increase in the risk of developing urinary stones [1, 4].

  9. immune system changes: There is an increase in neutrophil concentration, decreases in eosinophils, monocytes and B-cells, a rise in steroid hormones and damage to T-cells. In 1983 aboard Spacelab I, when human lymphocyte cultures were exposed in vitro to concanavalin A, the T-cells were activated at only 3 percent of the rate of similarly treated cultures on Earth. Loss of T-cell function may hamper the body's resistance to cancer -- a danger exacerbated by the high-radiation environment of space [1, 3, 5, 16].

  10. interference with medical procedures: Fluid redistribution affects the way drugs are taken up by the body, with important consequences for space pharmacology. Bacterial cell membranes become thicker and less permeable, reducing the effectiveness of antibiotics. Space surgery will also be greatly affected: organs will drift, blood will not pool, and transfusions will require mechanical assistance [1, 3, 17].

  11. vertigo and spatial disorientation: Without a stable gravitational reference, crew members experience arbitrary and unexpected changes in their sense of verticality. Rooms that are thoroughly familiar when viewed in one orientation may become unfamiliar when viewed from a different up-down reference. Skylab astronaut Ed Gibson reported a sharp transition in the familiarity of the wardroom when rotated approximately 45 degrees from the "normal" vertical attitude in which he had trained. There is evidence that, in adapting to weightlessness, the brain comes to rely more on visual cues and less on other senses of motion or position. In orbit, Skylab astronauts lost the sense of where objects were located relative to their bodies when they could not actually see the objects. After returning home, one of them fell down in his own house when the lights went out unexpectedly [4, 18].

  12. space adaptation syndrome: About half of all astronauts and cosmonauts are afflicted. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, anorexia, headache, malaise, drowsiness, lethargy, pallor and sweating. Susceptibility to Earth-bound motion sickness does not correlate with susceptibility to space sickness. The sickness usually subsides in 1 to 3 days [4,5].

  13. loss of exercise capacity: This may be due to decreased motivation as well as physiological changes. Cosmonaut Valeriy Ryumin wrote in his memoirs: "On the ground, [exercise] was a pleasure, but [in space] we had to force ourselves to do it. Besides being simple hard work, it was also boring and monotonous." Weightlessness also makes it clumsy: equipment such as treadmills, bicycles and rowing machines must be festooned with restraints. Perspiration doesn't drip but simply accumulates. Skylab astronauts described disgusting pools of sweat half an inch deep sloshing around on their breastbones. Clothing becomes saturated [1, 19].

  14. degraded sense of smell and taste: The increase of fluids in the head causes stuffiness similar to a head cold. Foods take on an aura of sameness and there is a craving for spices and strong flavorings such as horseradish, mustard and taco sauce [1, 4].

  15. weight loss: Fluid loss, lack of exercise and diminished appetite result in weight loss. Space travelers tend not to eat enough. Meals and exercise must be planned to prevent excessive loss [1, 19].

  16. flatulence: Digestive gas cannot "rise" toward the mouth and is more likely to pass through the other end of the digestive tract -- in the words of Skylab crewman-doctor Joe Kerwin: "very effectively with great volume and frequency" [1].

  17. facial distortion: The face becomes puffy and expressions become difficult to read, especially when viewed sideways or upside down. Voice pitch and tone are affected and speech becomes more nasal [1].

  18. changes in posture and stature: The neutral body posture approaches the fetal position. The spine tends to lengthen. Each of the Skylab astronauts gained an inch or more of height, which adversely affected the fit of their space suits [1, 20].

  19. changes in coordination: Earth-normal coordination unconsciously compensates for self-weight. In weightlessness, the muscular effort required to reach for and grab an object is reduced. Hence, there is a tendency to reach too "high" [21].

Many of these changes do not pose problems as long as the crew remains in a weightless environment. Trouble ensues upon the return to life with gravity. The rapid deceleration during reentry is especially stressful as the apparent gravity grows from zero to more than one "g" in a matter of minutes. In 1984, after a 237-day mission, Soviet cosmonauts felt that if they had stayed in space much longer they might not have survived reentry [3]. In 1987, in the later stages of his 326-day mission, Yuri Romanenko was highly fatigued, both physically and mentally. His work day was reduced to 4.5 hours while his sleep period was extended to 9 hours and daily exercise on a bicycle and treadmill consumed 2.5 hours. At the end of the mission, the Soviets implemented the unusual procedure of sending up a "safety pilot" to escort Romanenko back to Earth [22].

Soviet cosmonauts Vladimir Titov and Moussa Manarov broke the one-year barrier when they completed a 366-day mission on 21 December 1988. Subsequent Russian missions have surpassed that. These long-duration space flights are extraordinary. They are milestones of human endurance. They are not models for space commercialization.

This page was last updated: 21 June 1999

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