How Damaging Is Space Travel to the Human Body?

Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman

An alarming new study has raised concerns about the feasibility of long-distance space travel, including future Mars missions.

Just six months in space can cause two decades' worth of bone loss, making future trips to Mars potentially problematic.
Just six months in space can cause two decades' worth of bone loss, making future trips to Mars potentially problematic.

Due to the effects of microgravity, as little as six months in space can result in the equivalent of two decades' worth of bone loss. Unfortunately, around half of the weakening of weight-bearing bones appears to be irreversible, meaning that half a year in space permanently adds a decade's worth of age-related bone loss to an astronaut's skeletal structure.

In a project conducted over seven years, researchers from the University of Calgary studied 17 astronauts who stayed on the International Space Station for missions lasting between four and seven months. Using a 3D scanning technique known as high-resolution peripheral quantitative computed tomography (HR-pQCT), the researchers scanned the astronauts' wrists, ankles, and shins both before and immediately after their missions to determine their bone density and bone mineral content. They followed up with scans six months and 12 months after the return to Earth.

Interestingly, after a year back on Earth, 16 of the 17 astronauts still had weakened tibia bones. This effect was especially noticeable in those who had spent more than six months in space. The non-weight-bearing radii (lower arm) bones showed very little deterioration.

Lost (bone density) in space:

  • This isn't the first study to raise alarm bells at the potential dangers of a three-year Mars mission. It has been estimated that around one-third of astronauts returning from Mars would be at risk of osteoporosis.

  • Many other parts of the human body can deteriorate after extended time spent in space, including the eyes, heart, brain, spine, and muscles.

  • Although these findings may seem disheartening for future space travelers, the University of Calgary study also concluded that certain resistance training exercises can limit bone loss – especially deadlifts. Jumping exercise could also help.

Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman is a teacher and blogger who frequently writes for wiseGEEK about topics related to personal finance, parenting, health, nutrition, and education.
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman is a teacher and blogger who frequently writes for wiseGEEK about topics related to personal finance, parenting, health, nutrition, and education.

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    • Just six months in space can cause two decades' worth of bone loss, making future trips to Mars potentially problematic.
      By: eddie toro
      Just six months in space can cause two decades' worth of bone loss, making future trips to Mars potentially problematic.