Weightlessness sounds great, especially for those of us who carry around a few extra pounds. But floating around in space can be hazardous to your health. It can be bad for your ears, your heart, even your bones.

Enter Dr. Erik Viirre, an ear doctor and adjunct associate professor at UCSD Medical Center. A onetime astronaut candidate in Canada, he advises Zero Gravity Corporation, which serves daredevils who go airborne in a specially equipped 727 jet and temporarily experience weightlessness when the plane dives.

In a brief interview today Viirre, talked about the state of space health 40 years after the landing of Apollo 11.

Are astronauts safer today in space than they were during the moon missions?

Yes. The health effects on astronauts are one of the most extensively researched aspects of the space program. We recognize that this is really important, especially if we’re going to have long-term missions like a trip to Mars, when someone would have to be weightless for months on the trip and on the way back.

We’ve made substantial progress in a variety of areas including cardiac function. We know now very well the kinds of exercise programs that need to be done to prevent the heart from becoming de-conditioned. We can safely have them work up there for months and months.

In what other ways is weightlessness bad for one’s health?

If you sit around and you’re not active, your bones get thin. The same thing can happen in weightlessness: if you don’t put stress on the bones, you can lose bone mass and bone strength. We design exercise programs that are kind of like walking around on a treadmill with a bungee cord, keeping stress on the bones so they don’t thin so much.

What are some other challenges?

There are important areas where we haven’t made so much progress. My area of interest is the inner ear and motion sensation. Motion sickness is an issue up in orbit. We can control it through mediations, but it’s still an issue. One of the things we’re paying attention to on a trip to Mars is the ability for an astronaut to land a vehicle on Mars and drive a rover on Martian surface [without getting motion sickness]. The other big problem we have is radiation. It was sort of understood back in the 1960s, but now with the orbiting space station we know it’s a big issue for the next trip to the Moon or Mars.

Some months after the Apollo 16 mission, there was a solar flare with a huge amount of radiation output. Had the astronauts been on the moon at the time they would have died. The sun itself is the biggest radiation risk for the astronauts at this point. There are some places in the space station that are radiation (protected), but we still worry about it.

What about mental health?

We’re working on understanding psychological states and finding crews that are compatible so they can get the job done, so people are with people they’re happy to work with.

You served as medical adviser when disabled scientist Stephen Hawking went up on the Zero Gravity Corp. plane and became weightless. What were your concerns involving him?

He was in his mid 60s and although we’ve had people up in their 80s and 90s in zero gravity, we were worried it might be a strain on his heart. But he did fine.

Can you perform CPR in zero gravity?

If you’re weightless and you push on someone’s chest, you would float away. But on the space station, they have a bungee cord system on the examining table to hold you down.

Fortunately, on the (727 plane), we would just immediately call and go to level flight.


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