The Battle Against What Spaceflight Does To Your Health

Expedition 36/37 astronaut Karen Nyberg uses a fundoscope to take still and video images of her eye while in orbit. Credit: NASA

Why do some astronauts come back from the International Space Station needing glasses? Eye problems are one of the largest problems that have cropped up in the last three to four years of space station science, affecting 20% of astronauts. And the astronaut office is taking this problem very seriously, pointed out Scott Smith, who leads the Nutritional Biochemistry Lab at the Johnson Space Center.

It’s one example of how extended stays in flight can alter your health. Despite NASA’s best efforts, bones and muscles weaken and months of rehabilitation are needed after astronauts spend a half-year on the space station. But in recent years, there have been strides in understanding what microgravity does to the human body — and how to fix it.

Take the vision problem, for example. Doctors believed that increased fluid shift in the head increases pressure on the optic nerve, a spot in the back of the eye that affects vision. There are a few things that could affect that:

Expedition 32 astronaut Aki Hoshide with a fistfull of blood samples on the International Space Station in 2012. Credit: NASA
Expedition 32 astronaut Aki Hoshide with a fistfull of blood samples on the International Space Station in 2012. Credit: NASA
  • Exercise. Astronauts are told to allot 2.5 hours for exercise on the International Space Station daily, which translates to about 1.5 hours of activity after setup and transitions are accounted for. Weight lifting compresses muscles and could force more blood into their heads. NASA installed an advanced Resistive Exercise Device on the space station that is more powerful than its predecessor, but perhaps this is also causing the vision problem, Smith said. “It’s ironic that the exercise device we’re excited about for working the muscles and bone, may hurt eyes.”
  • CO2 levels. This gas (which naturally occurs when humans exhale) is “relatively high” on the space station because it takes more power and more supplies to keep the atmosphere cleaner, Smith said. “Increased carbon dioxide exposure will increase blood flow to your head,” he said. If this is found to be the cause, he added, NASA is prepared to make changes to reduce CO2 levels on station.
  • Folate (Vitamin B) problems. Out of the reams of blood and urine data collected since before NASA started looking at this problem, they had been looking at a biochemical (nutrient) pathway in the body that moves carbon units from one compound to another. This is important for synthesizing DNA and making amino acids, and involves several vitamins and nutrients. After scientists started noticing changes in folate (a form of Vitamin B), they probed further and found an interesting thing regarding homocysteine, a type of amino acid at the heart of this one carbon pathway. It turns out those astronauts with vision issues after flight had higher (but not abnormal) levels of homocysteine in their blood before flight, as published here.

“It’s speculating, but we think that genetic differences in this pathway may somehow alter your response to things that affect blood flow into the head,” Smith said.

After finding these essentially “circumstantial” evidence of a genetic predisposition to vision issues, they proposed an experiment to look at genes associated with one carbon metabolism. “To give you an idea of the importance of this problem, we went to every crew member that’s flown to space station, or will fly to space station.  We asked if they would give us a blood sample and look at their genes for one carbon meytabolism,” he said. “We approached 72 astronauts to do that, and 70 of them gave us blood, which is unheard of.”

While NASA tries to nail down what is going on with astronaut vision, the agency has made substantial progress in preserving bone density during flights — for the first time in 50 years of spaceflight, Smith added.

We mentioned the advanced Resistive Exercise Device, an orbital weight-lifting device which was installed and first used during Expedition 18 in 2008 and has been in use on the space station ever since. It’s a large improvement over the previous interim Resistive Exercise Device (iRED), which didn’t provide enough resistance, allowing some astronauts to “max out” on the device and could not further increase weightlifting loads after some weeks or months of use.

“We flew the iRED on station and the bone loss on station looked just like it did on Mir, that is, with no resistive exercise device available,” Smith said. But that changed drastically with ARED, which has twice as much loading capability. Crews ate better, maintained body weight and had better levels of Vitamin D compared to those that went before. Most strikingly, they maintained their bone density at preflight levels, as this paper shows.

While we think of bone as being cement-like and unchanging (at least until you break one!), it’s actually an organ that is always breaking down and reforming. When the breakdown accelerates, such as when you are not putting weight on it in orbit, you lose bone density and are at higher risk for fractures.

Why is unknown, except to say that the bone seems to rely on some sort of “signalling” that indicates loads or weights are being put on it. Conversely, if you are to put more weight on your bones — maybe carrying a backpack with weights on it — your skeleton would gradually get bigger to accommodate the extra weight.

While it’s exciting that the ARED is maintaining bone density, the question is whether the body can sustain two processes happening at a faster rate than before flight: the breakdown and buildup of bone. More study will be needed, Smith said, to pinpoint whether this affects the strength of the bone, which is ultimately more important than just mineral density. Nutrition and exercise may also be optimized, to further allow for better bone preservation.

That’s one of the things scientists are excited to study with the upcoming one-year mission to the International Space Station, when Scott Kelly (NASA) and Mikhail Kornienko (Roscosmos) will be one of a small number of people to do one consecutive calendar year in space. The bone “remodelling” doesn’t level off after six months, but perhaps it will closer to a year.

Smith pointed out the quality of health data has also improved since the long-duration Mir missions of the early to mid 1990s. Specific markers of bone breakdown and formation were just being discovered and implemented during that time, whereas today they’re commonly used in medicine. Between that, and the fact that NASA’s Mir data are from shorter-duration missions, Smith said he’s really looking forward to seeing what the year in space will tell scientists.

This concludes a three-part series on astronaut health. Two days ago:  Why human science is so hard to do in space. Yesterday: How do we make exercises work in Zero G?

Push. Pull. Run. Lift! How Do We Make These Exercises Work In Zero G?

Expedition 38/39 astronaut Koichi Wakata (Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency) uses the advanced Resistive Exercise Device (aRED) in the Tranquility node of the International Space Station in February 2014. Credit: NASA

Here’s the thing about going to the International Space Station: No one can predict what you’ll need to do during your six-month stay there. Maybe something breaks and you need to go “outside” to fix it, in a spacesuit. Maybe you’re going to spend a day or three in a cramped corner, fixing something behind a panel.

Your body needs to be able to handle these challenges. And a big key behind that is regular exercise.

To get ready, you need to change things up frequently on Earth. Weights. Kettleballs. Pull-ups. Squats. Deadlifts. Interval training on cycles and treadmills. And more.

“Preflight, we throw everything but the kitchen sink at [astronauts],” said Mark Guilliams, a NASA astronaut health specialist who gets them ready before orbit. “We try to work as many different movements, using multiple joints and as many different planes of motion as possible “.

Some astronauts hit the gym every single day, such as the enthusiastic Mike Hopkins who did a whole YouTube series on exercising in orbit during Expeditions 37/38 earlier this year. Others prefer a few times a week. The astronauts also receive training on how to use the exercise devices they’ll have in orbit. Because time is precious up there, even when it comes to preserving your stamina.

Now imagine yourself in a weightless environment for half a year. Many of the exercises you do on the ground are impossible, unless you make certain modifications — such as strapping yourself down. Nevertheless, to make sure astronauts’ physiological systems remain at healthy levels, the space station has a range of gym equipment and the astronauts are allotted 2.5 hours for exercise daily.

That sounds like a lot, until you start factoring in other things. Setting up and taking down equipment takes time, such as when the astronauts harness themselves to the treadmill to avoid floating away. The resistance exercise machine has to be changed around for different exercises. This means that their “active” time is roughly 60 minutes for weightlifting and 40 minutes for aerobic, six days a week.

Compare that to what is recommended by the American Heart Association– 30 minutes, five days a week for light aerobic activity and two days of weightlifting — and you can see the time astronauts spend on exercise is not unreasonable. Also remember that the rest of the day, they have no gravity. Treadmill stats show the astronauts take only roughly 5,000 to 6,000 steps each day they use they use the treadmill, compared to some people’s goals of reaching 10,000 steps a day on Earth.

“When you compare the actual time the crew spends on exercise to that recommended by the AHA, it’s not a significant portion of their day that we’re asking them to participate in order for them to try and maintain their physiological health,” said Andrea Hanson, an exercise hardware specialist for the space station.

Expedition 26's Cady Coleman (NASA) calibrates a device intended to measure oxygen production while sitting on the Cycle Ergometer with Vibration Isolation System (CEVIS) in the Destiny laboratory of the International Space Station. Credit: NASA
Expedition 26’s Cady Coleman (NASA) calibrates a device intended to measure oxygen production while sitting on the Cycle Ergometer with Vibration Isolation System (CEVIS) in the Destiny laboratory of the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

So what’s the equipment the astronauts get to use? The pictures in this article show you a range of things. There’s the Cycle Ergometer with Vibration Isolation and Stabilization System (CEVIS) — a fancy name for the exercise bike. It has remained pretty much the same since it was brought to the space station back in 2001, for Expedition 2. Its major goal is to keep an astronaut’s aerobic capacity up for demanding spacewalks, which can take place for up to eight hours at a time.

The weight device has changed over time, however. The initial Interim Resistive Exercise Device used rubber to provide the resistive force and ended up being not enough for some astronauts, who found themselves reaching the designed capability limits long before their missions ended. (Here’s a picture of it.) Astronauts stopped using it after Expedition 28 in favor of the advanced Resistive Exercise Device, which instead uses piston-driven vacuum cylinders.

“The new device actually enables us to go up to 600 pounds of loading,” Guillams said. The IRED device could only give 300 pounds of resistance. So now, even the strongest astronaut can get a challenge out of ARED, he said.

Expedition 32 astronaut Sun Williams uses the COLBERT (Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill) in the Tranquility node of the International Space Station in August 2012. The treadmill was named after comedian Stephen Colbert. Credit: NASA
Expedition 32 astronaut Sun Williams uses the COLBERT (Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill) in the Tranquility node of the International Space Station in August 2012. The treadmill was named after comedian Stephen Colbert. Credit: NASA

The treadmill aboard the station is also a newer one. The second-generation device allows for faster speeds, and to even save programs for each individual crew member so that they can have customized workouts when they arrive on station. (The first one, “Treadmill With Vibration Isolation And Stabilization System“, was put on to an unmanned Progress spacecraft in 2013 to burn up in the atmosphere.)

By the way, the new treadmill (T2) is called the COLBERT, or Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill. It’s named after comedian Stephen Colbert, who in 2009 had his viewers vote to attach his name to a space station module when NASA held an open contest. When “Colbert” won, NASA elected to name the treadmill after him, and called the module Tranquility instead.

Whatever the treadmill’s name, the goal is to maintain astronaut bone and cardiovascular health while in orbit. A future story will deal with some of the scientific results obtained from more than a decade of ISS science in orbit.

This is part of a three-part series on astronaut health. Yesterday: Why human science is so hard to do in space. Tomorrow: How do you fight back against space health problems?