Every one of us has looked up at the beautiful dark sky at least once and thought I want to see that up close. Maybe even played with lightsabers in their childhood. Or had an obsession with Doctor who, dreaming of a magic box to explore the universe. So my question here is simple: Who wants to be an astronaut? And my aim is also very simple: can I scare you enough or not. Kidding. Or maybe not.
Let us explore the many ways space tries its best to keep humans out. And how humans are stubborn in going up anyways. Here is how space stress and the immune system are related.
DEFINITION OF “STRESS” OUTSIDE EARTH
On Earth, there are many stresses in life. The stress of money, job, family, society, piling assignments, and of life in general. However, stress is a little different outside the warmth of our mother planet. It is harsher and more unforgiving. External stresses include various ionizing radiations, microgravity, diet, distress from launching and landing of space vessels, and infections. Internal stresses include are metabolic and immunological changes, linking space stress and the immune system. Lastly, there is intense psychological stress.
These are in the form of crippling homesickness in an unfamiliar universe, sleep disturbances, loneliness, and fear of the unknown. On Earth almost all of these problems are curable. Yet in space, in the safety of some metal pieces, these issues become huge enough to sabotage the whole mission.
CAN OUR BODY BEAR IT?
So the big question: Can we physically endure being in space flights? The answer is: it is difficult to say.
When Apollo-11crew members returned home, a lot of myths were born like “Alien viruses”. Rightfully so, because almost all of them suffered from diseases. This moved NASA to explore the matter.
The process of taking off from Earth was problematic. Crew members feel intense vibrations. This alerts their immune system that something wrong. Once the red lights are on in the body, haphazard action starts. It is, in a way, chaos.
Cytokine (small proteins like bound letters, each carrying a unique message) network disturbs. White blood cells cannot talk to each other properly. There is overexpression of some components. On the other hand, IL-2, etc are depressed so T-cell cannot be made.
The viruses sleeping in the crew find their golden chance and they cause disease. From herpes virus, poxvirus to E.coli, a plethora of pathogens can feast on the human body.
Interferons are major protectors against viruses. Their concentrations keep varying. There was the disturbance of natural killer cells which are natural killers of pathogens (duh). Luckily, this was only due to space landing/launch and returned to normal after few days. Still, if humans are to stay on board for a long time, this could place them at nature’s mercy.
Space fever is a real process in space. The body temperature at rest could rise to 1 degree. Additionally, the temperature during exercise could exceed 40 degrees even. This is the famous “Space fever”. It can have serious consequences. We know many reactions are going on inside us. Regulating temperature is important for maintaining the body environment.
PUFFY FACE, BIRD LEGS:
Microgravity is the small intensity of gravity that clings crew to vessel walls. Despite how cool it looks in movies, it is LETHAL for humans. Bone density decreases immensely. This directly places stress on the immune system. Osteoporosis can develop. White blood cells cannot mature properly.
All in all, the astronauts become weak. Moreover, we know fluid flows differently on space ships. The fluid of the body starts accumulating in the face, away from the outer parts. This results in facial swelling, and weak legs, a phenomenon called “Puffy face, bird legs”.
SPACE: FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH?
There are countless other problems in sending humans to space for deep space explorations. The gut microbiome becomes weak, resulting in altered nutrient absorption. Some develop allergies, a weak immune system, psychological issues, and even decreased aging rate.
NASA conducted a twin study and pinpointed this delayed aging process. They sent one crew member to space for a year while his twin remained on Earth. The biological age of the twin sent to space was less than his brother, a process having multiple reasons, and ultimately linking space stress with immune system and metabolism.
TRY EVERY POSSIBLE SOLUTION
Needless to say, NASA scrutinized these problems and many more. Their team of experts devised some countermeasures for ensuring human survival.
Ironically, the first solution to the problem of viral and bacterial infections was establishing strict quarantine. The crew members of Apollo-11 also spent months in 1969 before their Moon mission.
NASA implemented a strict lockdown when astronauts were about to return from a mission in April 2020 as they had a weak immune system. Only the backup crew can interact with them. Staff cleans and sanitizes the space vessel thoroughly and install HEPA filters (really high power filters). This ensures that they are infection-free before going on board.
One reason Apollo-11 crew members suffered so much was their diet was hypocaloric. This increased oxidative stress (oxygen-free radicles) in their body which weakened them. Nowadays, the diet is much more balanced. Fruits and vegetables dominate their meals.
Vitamin C, folate, carotenoids, whey proteins, and more in their food ensured that oxidative stress in the body is dealt with. They make the white blood cells more powerful. So now, T-cell, B-cell, and natural killer cells can be on standby in case of an attack on the body but do not exceed limits.
Crew members take supplements of Vitamin A, vitamin E, vitamin C, omega-3 and polyphenols, etc. Vitamin A prevents damage to the mucus lining in our stomach, food pipe, and nose so it can provide a barrier against germs.
Polyphenols are anti-inflammatory, as in they stop the immune system from becoming hyper. Since the Ozone layer is absent outside Earth’s stratosphere, Sun’s radiations become more unforgiving and harmful. Omega-3 is vital to shield against radiations in space.
Probiotics are living bacteria but not to fear! They are the good guys. Probiotics are eaten, either as supplements or natural products like onion and yogurt. They attach to our intestine linings and help digest food. The space environment might negatively affect our body’s ability to break down and extract nutrients from already unappetizing food. So these benefactors establish themselves inside the digestive tract and help cuz they care.
Believe it or not, exercise is the quickest way to boost immunity. Due to the tie between stress and the immune system, astronauts are instructed to work out regularly in space ships. There is an instant boost. The white blood cells spread throughout the body, emerging from their hideouts in our body i.e lymphoid organs.
Macrophages, natural killer cells, and neutrophils scavenge even the remote tissues of the human body to capture pathogens. Response to vaccine also becomes better. Body mass starts reducing (obviously) so crew members are safe from obsesity. Albeit all these responses die out when exercise ends, these are still important for maintaining health “out there”.
WE CAN MAKE IT! HOPEFULLY
There have been myths surrounding the dark abyss since always. Many of those myths revealed to be true, once humans dare infiltrate the unknown. Space is unfriendly. Even in the safety of a spaceship, space radiations have detrimental effects on the human body.
A solid negative link was found between stress and the immune system in space. Radiations, insufficient diet, viral infections, and loneliness resulted in the weak immune system of astronauts. However, space institutions joined hands in finding solutions to overcome these problems.
Diet, exercise, and many more countermeasures were included in the training of crew members. So now, in 2021, after years of research, it is safe to say that humans can travel outside the Earth. How scary the idea might be, the curiosity of the human race has always been mightier! Now you can go and book your tickets to Mars.