Medicals For Space Travel
December 14, 2012

Scientists: Medicals Needed For Space Tourists

Brett Smith for — Your Universe Online

As private companies, like Virgin Galactic, race to send travelers into space, the medical community must begin to address the hazards of both an actual trip into orbit and the ramifications upon return for the average person.

With these unprecedented situations looming just over the horizon for medical professionals, a group of Canadian and U.S. scientists have published a paper on the subject in the Christmas edition of the British Medical Journal.

“Here, we provide some background to the field of space medicine for non-experts and point to resources for clinicians when a patient presents with requests related to space travel,” the authors wrote.

In the U.S., where Virgin Galactic is constructing its Spaceport America, the Federal Aviation Administration has contributed to legislation designed to regulate commercial spaceflight through its Office of Commercial Space Transportation. However, the legislation makes no reference to any medical requirements for travelers, although the F.A.A. does propose requiring informed medical consent.

While there is currently very little literature on the medical disqualification of potential travelers, professional astronauts have been disqualified for “vision or ophthalmological conditions, cardiovascular conditions, chronic sinusitis, migraine, kidney stones, and asthma,” according to the report.

The authors noted there is currently a proactive effort to understand how the general population may need to receive treatment after taking a trip into space.

“Space medicine experts are also investigating and designing preventive and post-flight treatments for observed clinical consequences of space travel, including space motion sickness, orthostatic intolerance, and neurovestibular dysfunction on return to Earth, increased risk of cardiac dysrhythmias, osteoporosis, muscle atrophy, increased risk of kidney stones and infections, and a possible increased risk of cancer with exposure to radiation and immunosuppression,” the report said.

A few dire situations have forced the medical evacuation from orbital stations. Intractable headaches (1976), prostatitis induced sepsis (1985), and cardiac dysrhythmia (1987), have all forced the evacuation of cosmonauts.

The authors noted any future policy should maintain a delicate balance between safety and keeping the newly established sector viable.

Besides being a novelty or new way to travel across the globe, scientists expect commercial space flights will open up the further transfer of innovations from the space sciences to life back on Earth. Some experts estimate that over 1500 products have resulted from space technologies, including several in medicine.

“In addition to these direct benefits, some authors have charted economic benefits from space activities,” the report said.

The report added that a previous study has shown investments in space technologies have a return rate of 8:1 or higher.

“It is therefore interesting that the public generally believes that greater amounts of the budget are spent on space programmes [sic] than the actual allocations,” the authors wrote.

“Moreover, even conservative estimates of return on investment and savings of healthcare dollars for common chronic diseases suggest a robust return on a relatively minimal investment. The International Space Station is now an international laboratory, which permits us to study human physiology, medicine, and human molecular biology with new technologies that operate in the absence of Earth´s gravity. We are on the cusp of discovery in numerous medical fields.”