Don’t let health fears keep you from space

Justin Bachman
Bloomberg News

The so-called “space billionaires” Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Elon Musk imagine a day when people will live and work in space, gradually transforming humanity into a multi-planet species.

The next step in that direction is the development of a space tourism industry, and that’s about to become a reality.

The rich will go first, of course, paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to be astronauts if only for a few minutes. These extreme-tourism-style flights by Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX are seen as a precursor to an era when blasting to and from space will be considered as routine as flying from New York to Chicago.

These space trips will present a demanding environment for anyone who isn’t a fighter pilot or a real astronaut. Fleeing and re-entering the atmosphere is a dynamic, stressful experience thanks to the forces of gravity and millions of pounds of thrust powering an ascent that reaches thousands of miles per hour.

“It’s not like just walking on an airplane and putting on your lap belt and reading a book or falling asleep,” said Dr. James Vanderploeg, chief medical officer for Virgin Galactic, which could begin its sub-orbital customer flights next year. While that may be true, research does show that space travel will probably be physically manageable for your average untrained human.

“Normal people can go into outer space,” Tony Antonelli, Lockheed Martin Corp.’s chief technologist for space exploration and a former Space Shuttle pilot, said in September at the 68th International Astronautical Congress in Australia. Indeed, Americans became aware long ago that scientists, elderly politicians and even school teachers could meet all the requirements of a Space Shuttle mission having the right stuff didn’t require you to be Chuck Yeager.

But those astronauts still went through NASA’s formidable training; much less physical preparation will be provided passenger shopping aboard a commercial flight. And whether they can handle the psychological stress remains an open question.

If all goes as planned, the commercial space race will introduce scores of new “astronauts” each year: Mostly middle-aged and older people with some run-of-the mill maladies that come with age. This situation, novel to space travel, led researchers to probe the average person’s vulnerabilities in such an environment, contributing to a growing body of research about the stresses of rocket flight for those without a NASA-certified physique.

“When I started this 10 years ago, I was pretty skeptical,” said Vanderploeg, who is also executive director of aerospace medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. After years of study that involved spinning people of all ages in a centrifuge to replicate extreme gravitational stress, or G forces, he said “what we found was that most people would do just fine.”

Does this mean space travelers with heart disease or diabetes, pacemakers or insulin pumps, or any chronic affliction that comes with old age could pass muster? Potentially yes. The primary medical-screening issue, Vanderploeg said, is whether a flier’s condition is “well understood and well controlled” and the person is receiving the appropriate treatment.

One thing is for certain, though: these very short trips into space won’t be priced for the budget minded. Virgin Galactic is charging $250,000 for its two-hour journeys, which will carry two pilots and six passengers. Other potential space options aren’t likely to be cheap, either.

Beyond physical or even psychological fitness, future passengers will need to consider something even more basic: the overall risks inherent to space flight.

The risk is roughly equivalent to climbing Mount Everest, according to an FAA-funded analysis, which is a little more than a 1 in 100 chance of not making it back. That’s pretty much the same odds American astronauts have had up until now.