October 3, 2008

Antarctic Bases Provide Scientists With Valuable Space Lessons

Expeditioners say Australia's Antarctic bases are perfect for planning long-term space missions since being trapped in the depths of an Antarctic winter is no different than being trapped on the moon.

"When you are in Antarctica you know you can't get out -- there's no rescue during winter. And that changes one's mentality," said Des Lugg, head of polar medicine at the Australian Antarctic Division from 1968-2001 and now a consultant to NASA.

"You can get back faster from the international space station than you can from the Antarctic in the depths of winter," he said.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration of the United States has run a joint program with the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) since 1993 studying human health and how small groups adapt to many months of isolation working in the coldest place on earth.

Jeff Ayton, the division's chief medical officer, said Australia's Antarctic program has some of the most isolated stations in Antarctica where they have total isolation for up to nine months of the year.

He and others believe Australia's Antarctic stations were good analogues for space travel and figuring out how people get along in close environments.

"It's an extreme environment and we've got real people in real hazardous situations and their survival is dependent on technology and complex systems not too dissimilar to survival in space.

"We also have wide experience of the medical conditions that can occur in Antarctic stations and they are of interest to people planning for long-term missions to Mars and other exploratory missions," Ayton added.

NASA has shown particular interest in the division's decades-old experience in using super-generalist doctors at its bases. Some of these have been recruited from rural Australia, home of the traditional country doctor who are adept at tackling just about any medical challenge.

Physicians there have conducted brain surgery, fixed fractures and given counseling on mental health problems.

"We have managed pregnancies in Antarctica. That is part of the medical spectrum we have to deal with," Ayton said.

Experience like that would be crucial on a long-term mission to Mars or beyond.

But many other medical conditions also present challenges where previous studies have shown Antarctic expeditioners suffer vitamin D deficiencies through lack of sunlight, depression as well as weaker immune systems.

Studies have shown the reactivation of latent viruses, such as the Epstein-Barr virus or other members of the herpes virus family, Ayton said.

He said studies have shown similar changes to the immune system in space.

"It's not fully known to date what causes immune suppression. We've looked at psychological factors on the immune system. We've looked at vitamin D effects on the immune system and the stresses in small, confined environments," he said.

Viruses tend to lie dormant in the body and then reactivate in space or in Antarctica, Lugg added.

"No one has exhibited any clinical disease. This is the other interesting thing. Although they have altered their immune status, there is no clinical disease that we've been able to detect in Antarctica to show for the altered immune response," he said.

One of the more important top issues is mental health.

Some expeditioners find being confined to a small base with a dozen or so colleagues for months away from family and friends can be a major source of stress.

The vast number of people adapted well to life in Antarctica with only very rare cases of expeditioners suffering mental breakdowns, Lugg and Ayton said.

Lugg did a 25-year study of documented behavioral health problems in Antarctica and said the incidence rate was four percent of all primary consultations to the base doctor.

He said many have sleep problems, but what you are looking for are the classic psychosis episodes.

"There was a guy one year who heard babies cry. He came to the doctor and he said 'I'm hearing voices'. Fortunately, he was able to be got out because it was just before the close of winter."

Cases like this are rare, but having just one episode in Antarctica or in space could be disastrous.

"However many you have going to Mars in a tin can and someone has a major psychotic event, they are going to have great difficulty handling that."

Which is why pre-expedition health and psychological screening, and possibly genetic testing in the future, are so crucial.

"We don't take asthmatics, you don't take anyone who's epileptic, who's on cardiac medication or had a cardiac problem, hypertension -- you screen out a vast number of people," said Lugg, who spent five years working in Washington with NASA's Office of the Chief Health and Medical Officer until 2006.

Lugg said "niceties," are also crucial, such as understanding human nature as well as cultural differences.

"When you are dealing with humans, you've got to get back to the very basics, and that is their ability to live together, to work together and the health side of it."

Issues like that include fighting boredom by providing a good variety of food. It also meant understanding that sex and a glass or two of wine with dinner were normal desires.

There were no restrictions on expeditioners when it came to sex. Whatever amorous liaisons occurred between expeditioners were their own business during the nine months or more away from families, Ayton said.

Ayton echoed Lugg's view that it was crucial to keep base life as normal as possible. "Australia's Antarctic stations are no different to any other Australian community," he said.


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