With the coronavirus outbreak ongoing on earth, one interesting question is what happens when astronauts get sick in space. It stands to reason that it does happen, but with COVID-19 it is different altogether.
There have been instances when astronauts have gotten sick in zero gravity and have experienced several maladies. These sicknesses are upper respiratory infections (URI) or colds, urinary tract infections and skin infections, according to Jonathan Clark (six-time) crew surgeon for NASA's Space Shuttle program, a doctor at the Center for Space Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine, discussed the subject.
The Apollo missions
In 1968, during the Apollo 7 mission, all the astronauts were infected with colds. It was Cmdr. Wally Schirra who caught colds first even before she went aboard. She infected the rest of the crew. However, while in space, they ran out of medications and tissue paper. Because of their colds, they were not wearing helmets when they re-entered the Earths atmosphere.
Other incidents were experienced by astronauts on Apollo 8 and 9, which also involves a common cold. After these occurrences, NASA worked on a mandatory pre-flight quarantine that was all about limited contact to ensure that the crew is healthy and safe.
One major concern that arise about early space illnesses is how the astronauts will fight maladies that are far worse on off-world habitats. Is it possible for the crew to manage off-world conditions?
Astronauts can have remote access to medical emergencies and medical assistance via earth space communication. At one time, medical experts on earth were able to render assistance on the space station, for a personnel's blood clot. Getting sick in space is not the same if an astronaut was on earth, especially with a coronavirus outbreak in zero gravity.
Space flight: How it affects sickness in space
There is a big difference in how infections, pathogen, and illnesses work when in zero gravity space. Include the stress of blasting off to space and staying in zero-gravity in small spaces. This creates conditions that change how colds can be for those in space.
For most astronauts, spaceflight alters the biochemistry of the body in unusual ways that are still being understood. Motion sickness when blasting off causes stresses that result in spatial orientation and coordination. Reaching space there will be altering the stress in hormonal levels, affecting the immune system to make it more susceptible to sicknesses.
In a sealed environment, pathogens like the flu and coronavirus can be spread easier in an environment with low gravity like on the International Space Station. Without gravity, the pathogen is free-floating, which makes it easy to transmit it. HEPA filters are used to remove the particles.
Most dormant viruses will awaken in spaceflight. Enhanced bacterial virulence in space make anti-biotics less effective. Antiviral medication is to prevent viral spreading, just like terrestrial epidemics. The usual planetary flight will be done in isolation like the Apollo missions.
Can astronauts do something?
Whatever manned mission it is, spreading pathogens is a concern for future astronauts as in the past. If a similar disease like COVID-19 were to happen off-world, there are specific ways to go about it. What can be done is to isolate any crew in their quarters while symptomatic and wear a face mask, then cultures will be made to find the right treatment.
If it were on the ISS on the USS segment, the filters will clean the air and all surfaces. Dealing with pathogens in spacecraft is different because of zero gravity. Lack of gravity changes how our biochemistry works and how the disease is transmitted.
For the most part, getting sick in space is different from zero-gravity that changes. If astronauts have to deal with a coronavirus like outbreak, it is complicated but advancements in the future will surely make a difference.
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