“The eagle has landed” were the words that heralded man’s arrival on the moon. The moment was broadcast live on television and drew an audience of over 530 million people around the world who watched Neil Armstrong’s little jumps. How the first astronaut to walk on Earth’s natural satellite moved has intrigued many. This is how the element of the Apollo 11 mission found to handle the gravitational forces of the Moon.
Space exploration spurred the medical community to devote themselves to studying a new problem, which everyone who saw the astronaut realized: the fact that the human organism is not prepared for weightlessness and this has health implications.
More than 50 years after this first trip to the Moon, visits to space have become recurrent and will occur more and more frequently. Therefore, according to neurosurgeon and professor at the Faculty of Medicine, Edson Oliveira: “it is necessary to understand the limits of the human body in these journeys, so that we can prevent and learn to manage the effects”.
Neurosurgeon and Doctor Thais Russomano founded the first Center for Aerospace Medicine Studies (CEMA) in the country, at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Lisbon. The goal is simple: to study the changes in the organism as it passes through the Earth’s atmosphere. Both also created the discipline of aerospace medicine, which is taught in partnership with the Portuguese Air Force, so that all questions about aeronautics are clarified.
The behavior of the human body in space
The Moon has one-sixth of Earth’s gravity. This gravitational difference felt between planet Earth and the natural satellite has an impact on astronauts and will, in the future, on astrotourists. The differences between the two gravitational forces are felt mainly in the heart, brain and muscles.
“All organizations [dos astronautas] undergo physiological changes that often become pathological. The main one is musculoskeletal. We have bones, muscles and joints accustomed to Earth’s gravity. In these low-gravity atmospheres, the muscles don’t feel as many stimuli to work, which eventually leads to muscle atrophy. Skeletal movements are less complete and demanding, which in many cases leads to osteoporosis. Once they arrive at their destination — whether in space or back on Earth — most astronauts cannot assume an upright position, i.e. stand up or walk right away,” explains the professor. . While in space, professionals have to train every day for a few hours, wearing a belt that straps them to the spacecraft or space station, so their muscles don’t atrophy.
From the cardiovascular point of view, there is also a phenomenon that has already been studied: “the absence of gravity causes fluids that used to reach the extremities to now accumulate in the central part of the body, especially in the chest and head“. It can also happen that the heart rate slows down. The professor explains: “Without gravity, the spine lengthens, which makes us taller. At the same time, the cardiovascular system adapts, because the heart doesn’t have to work as hard.
This is one of the conclusions NASA came to after comparing the physiology of two twin brothers, one is an astronaut and the other is not. Scott Kelly spent 340 days on the International Space Station while his identical twin, Mark Kelly, remained on Earth. According to the US Aerospace Agency, Scott came back five centimeters taller than his brother.
However, in comparison, there was a decrease in Scott’s bone formation and an increase in the level of the hormone that contributes to healthy muscles and bones. There was also a slight decrease in Scott’s cognitive abilities, in terms of speed of thought and accuracy.
In addition to these, there is another condition that Edson Oliveira has faced, which occurs on long trips: ocular nerve syndrome. “It has been found that some astronauts are more likely to be farsighted, as opposed to nearsighted.“, he explains. Hyperopia is the difficulty of seeing up close. It is a common term that describes a blurry view of near objects, but clear when looking from a distance. It usually appears after the age of 40 year.
“These conditions mean that when they return to Earth, astronauts suffer from side effects – vomiting, nausea and cold sweats – for several days”, reveals the doctor who is passionate about space exploration.
“You have to be perfect from a physiological point of view. [para se ser astronauta], even observe the calcium content in the coronary arteries. Minimize risk as much as possible while maximizing health. With the advent of commercial spaceflight or the construction of private space stations, we are going to have ordinary people in space. Will they get there?asks Edson Oliveira.
The last astrotourism flight took place on June 4. This was the fifth time the New Shepard capsule had carried humans, and the team numbered five men and one woman. One thing is certain for the professor: “the people who have made the trips will be studied by medicine to understand the effects that the experience has on their bodies”.
At the Center for Aerospace Medicine Studies, it is possible to perform various tests. On the Alter G treadmill, for example, it is possible to remove 80% of the weight and study gait profiles. The device simulates running in environments with less gravity, such as the Moon or Mars. To get on the device, the voluntary student must wear suitable shorts, which are connected to the treadmill itself, so that from the waist up he can simulate the movement without gravity.
Another of the devices available is a tilting table. The name may be scary (tilt means, literally, to tilt), but it’s very similar to a stretcher, where a person lies down and their head is placed at six inverted degrees, to simulate being in space. “We were able to understand physiological changes and how the body adapts. There are volunteers who stay like that for a month. Here, we carried out studies mainly at the ocular and jugular level, using a probe”.
In addition to these, in the room we also find another device, placed on a common treadmill, which, the professor explains to us, is used to carry out spirometry studies – an examination of the lungs, commonly known as the test of effort, which allows the registration of several volumes and airflows. In other words, it makes it possible to measure gases and the variation of, for example, oxygen and carbon dioxide in space environments.
If you’re thinking of volunteering to walk without gravity, on an Alter G, your dream might end here. The laboratory is only accessible to students of the Faculty of Medicine and the number of places to access the discipline is limited to 25 students.
Click through the gallery to discover the innovative equipment that studies the health of those who go to Space in Lisbon.
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