Focus on Space
Over time, the human body has adapted for life here on earth. Space is still a largely unknown and hostile environment, but with every space mission, we can learn more about this alien world and how the human body adapts to conditions in space.
Tim Peake is the first British European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut to visit the Space Station, where he is spending six months as part of the international crew. His mission, called “Principia”, began on 15 December 2015 and will last 6 months. Research in space facilitates the study of many different subjects, providing a unique environment to investigate novel materials, life in space, the human body, fluid physics, new technologies and many other things.
There are many physiology-related experiments taking place on board the space station – both to determine the effects of living in space, but also to study responses to other pathological conditions, which are mirrored (such as increased brain pressure).
ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Tim Peake operates the Muscle Atrophy Research and Exercise System (MARES) equipment inside the Columbus module. MARES is an ESA system that will be used for research on musculoskeletal, biomechanical, and neuromuscular human physiology to better understand the effects of microgravity on the muscular system.
Several Members of The Physiological Society share an interest in the opportunities presented by studying physiology in space. Here, Julia Attias from the Centre of Human & Aerospace Physiological Sciences at Kings College University comments on Tim Peake’s current mission:
"The benefit of Tim's mission for physiological research is two-fold. The plan is for humans to go to Mars within the next 20-30 years, which will be roughly a three year round trip, all in a reduced gravity environment. The worst thing that could happen is for those humans to get to Mars (roughly 6-9 months in), and something to have happened to them along the way that causes significant damage or injury to their bodies – far away from any medical care they would need. The mission would also be a loss in such a scenario. Tim and all astronauts carry out a lot of physiological research on the state of their bodies whilst in zero-gravity. This research will enable us to learn what we need to do in order to ensure that astronauts are prepped correctly, and that all necessary measures are in place to ensure they are in good condition when they arrive.
Secondly, there are many analogies between the physiological de-conditioning that astronauts experience and the physiological de-conditioning* that certain people on Earth experience e.g. the elderly, those that are in bed for long periods of time, those that have muscle wasting diseases, and those that can't fully weight bear. These people generally suffer similar issues to astronauts; by understanding what happens to the bodies of astronauts in space, we can better understand what happens to these people on Earth and therefore be more informed to find solutions."
*a complex process of physiological change following a period of inactivity, bedrest or sedentary lifestyle. It results in functional losses in such areas as mental status, degree of continence and ability to accomplish activities of daily living. (Gillis, A. and MacDonald, B., 2005. Deconditioning in the hospitalized elderly. Canadian nurse, 101(6).)
You can find out more about what happens to the body in space here.
Resources for schools:
- I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here Mars Mission Debate Kit – an educational classroom activity to get your students discussing the technical, physiological, social and ethical issues around human space exploration.
- Test your reaction time with these games designed for Tim Peake’s mission: https://astro-pi.org/competition/winners/#reactiongames
- Train alongside Tim to win a unique visit to the European Astronaut Centre: http://www.spacetoearthchallenge.org.uk/
- Listen to biologist, astronaut, and mountain climber Scott Parazynski talk about life in extreme environments and what this tells us about space travel: https://askabiologist.asu.edu/explore/space-physiology
- Interact with the people behind Principia and human space missions in this online activity: https://principia.org.uk/activity/im-an-astronaut/