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How To Train for a Mission to the ISS: Medical Mayhem

Astronaut Chris Hadfield with biomedical equipment attached to his forehead. Credit: Chris Hadfield.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield is scheduled to launch on Decemer 19 with crewmates Tom Marshburn and Roman Romanenko on a Soyuz rocket, heading for a long-duration 5-month mission on board the International Space Station. We’re taking a look back at his 2-plus years of training for this mission, which Hadfield shared via Twitter and Facebook, letting the public get an inside look at what it takes to prepare for a long-duration spaceflight.

The movie “The Right Stuff” depicted the grueling array of medical tests the early astronauts had to undergo in order to determine if they had… well, the right stuff to go into space. Now, more than 50 years later, with scientists and the medical community knowing quite a bit more about how the human body reacts to micro-gravity, the pre-flight medical procedures aren’t quite as intrusive. But astronaut Chris Hadfield says it is still part of being an astronaut.

“They do a nice job of telling how hard it is going to be, how invasive,” he said in an interview with Universe Today, “but none of that matters when it’s time to go to bed at night, when you’ve got six different probes stuck in you or a loud machine next to you, and you know you you’re not going to get a good night’s sleep.”

“Whether you are flying a spaceship or a T-38, it is good to be prepared,” Hadfield said, along with posting this image via Twitter.

Another part of medical training is having a forced special diet where “you have to document everything you eat, evaluating what happens at the other end,” Hadfield explained, “and they try to be as good and non-invasive as they can, but by its very nature it is invasive, and that’s the way it is.”

Hadfield said he knew about this going into the job. “It is absolutely part of the business so it is OK,” he said.

Hadfield participating in the VC Reflex test, an experiment for orthostatic hypotension, or dizzyness from low blood pressure, one of the most common physical complications of spaceflight. “Space Science: applying electricity behind the ears affects balance and thus blood pressure regulation,” Hadfield said.

Not only are there pre-flight medical tests and procedures, but all space station crew members undergo continual medical tests and evaluations during their time in orbit, becoming test subjects for various experiments as well as keeping tabs on their health while in space.

“We do regular urine, saliva collection and blood draws. We have to be able to take blood from each other or yourself. If you’ve never taken blood from yourself…” Hadfield said, letting the sentence trail off. Fun? Not so much.

“Astronaut physical for Space Station today – 18 tubes and a squeeze ball”

Thankfully, the astronauts don’t always have to poke themselves. “We have volunteers come in all the time and let me stick them with a needle so I can get good at drawing blood,” Hadfield said, “and we do a lot of ultrasounds – carotid artery and cardiac ultrasounds. We need to identify any changes that take place in the heart after extended zero-g. This is all very important for going beyond Earth orbit; we need to understand those changes.”

A day of medical training with dummies. “Somehow the sock makes it worse,” Hadfield said via Twitter.

Not only do the crew have to do medical tests on themselves, but they have to be prepared for any medical emergency, since there usually isn’t a dedicated medical doctor on the space station. However, Hadfield considers himself lucky: crewmate Marshburn is a medical doctor.

“There are various ways to get ill on board – some natural, like appendicitis, stroke, — or you could be in an accident.” Hadfield said, “Someone could bang their head coming around a corner, get pinched between equipment, get the bends coming in from a spacewalk, or be exposed to poisonous gas. Various things can happen.”

“We have full-911 capability on board,” Hadfield continued. “We can react, we can strap someone down, get them on oxygen, inject them with things to get their heart going again, or use defibrillators. We need to know how to intubate people and give them forced breathing. We need to know how to react.”

Medical training includes practicing emergency medical procedures such as stitches.

They have small pharmacy on board, and need to know a lot of procedures. “Of course we always have medical help on-call from the ground, but you could easily have to deal with a burn or something in an eye, so I’ve trained working in an emergency room at a hospital in Houston,” Hadfield said, doing things from making a quick diagnosis to inserting catheters or IVs, or sewing stitches on wounds “ so I can get comfortable doing those things to the human body.”

Astronauts on the ISS practicing CPR: “How do you give CPR without gravity to hold you down? Like this!,” Tweeted Hadfield.

This video shows some of the emergency medical training the crew receives:

Next: Astronaut Food

Additional articles in this series:
How to Train for Long Duration Space Flight with Chris Hadfield
How to Train for a Mission to the ISS: Medical Mayhem
How to Train for a Mission to the ISS: Eating in Space
How to Train for a Mission to the ISS: The Soyuz

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Greg Salmela December 12, 2012, 3:47 AM

    Love this series, fascinating. I guess the life of an astronaut isn’t always glamorous, but the scope of what you have to learn and the skills you have to master keep it interesting.

  • Steve Harrynuk December 12, 2012, 3:54 AM

    There are two little sensors, one with an icon of a forehead and one with a torso, and Hadfield has the torso sensor taped to his forehead.

  • Ted Oliveira December 12, 2012, 5:39 AM

    Chris you are way cool and an awesome Canadian! I’ve tried to emulate myself in of many components your life, tonnes!!! But, now that you are not in the RCAF and being the closet hippie that you are and that you are able to shave without consequence: I’m dying to see what you look like without your moustache! I know tons of aerospace people who have shaved it, and they look like, really, really cool (twelve year olds.) Is this you, too? Challenge: on!

  • Pasi Jokela December 12, 2012, 11:03 AM

    A question: If someone dies on board the ISS, how do the rest of the crew handle his/hers body? Also is it possible to get a “space burial” so your body gets tossed into orbit around the Earth until later cremation when re-entering? (If there was a way to go, that would be it!)

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