But now that Vande Hei is back on Earth, the mental and physical health of astronauts who spend a lot of time in space is being discussed. It’s not without its risks, and Free University gravity researcher Jacques Van Loon calls it completely irresponsible. “I think it is unethical to leave people without weight for so long. It is very unhealthy to be weightless for so long.”
change the brain
Van Loon was studying how the body changed during his long stay in space. For example, the immune system appears to function less, skin deteriorates and bone mass decreases. “The body will adapt to the new situation. There is nothing wrong with that if you intend to stay in space.”
But the astronauts continue their lives on Earth after their mission. Recent research shows that it does not help the brain change. Cognitive functions are particularly affected. Van Loon still doesn’t know if this is permanent.
However, bone miniaturization is a problem. You can still see it a year later in astronauts who have been in space for a longer period of time. On the space station, astronauts train for an hour and a half to counteract these effects, but according to Van Loon, that’s not enough.
Dutch space psychologist Mindy Howard also believes that a NASA astronaut will never be the same when he leaves. During the courses you offer Virgin Galactic’s commercial space travelers, for example, you often see their image of themselves and the Earth change when they see the planet from afar. Not to mention how long people stayed.
“Because people have seen the world from a different perspective, they want to protect it better later,” Howard says. “They realize we only have one world and they see how vulnerable it is.” But also smaller things like the love of food or a change of family. “People really like to eat hamburgers or spend time with their loved ones, for example.”
According to Howard, there is a significant mental challenge in a long stay in a space station, where there are only a few other astronauts. “People can change a lot when they are alone for a long time. For example, they may become less productive and feel homesick.”
In order to better prepare astronauts for isolation, they are often isolated during their training. For example, the European Space Agency ESA offers courses in Antarctica, where it leaves people behind for a year. “This way they can see how future astronauts react to boredom or how they deal with other sleep patterns,” the psychiatrist said.
Howard sees many challenges in mental training for future astronauts, particularly in light of potential space travel to Mars. “So you’re in the dark and you only see the stars, and it’s quite secluded.” He hopes that more attention will be paid to the mental health of the astronauts by then. “We are not doing enough in this area yet and there is a lot that can be achieved.”
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