Why Do Astronauts Experience Space Puberty?
If we believe in Hollywood movies, a lot of strange things can happen to a person when they are up in space. Movies depict how space can play tricks on the mind, and in cases when it’s just an astronaut and a computer, the sheer loneliness can drive astronauts to insanity. David Sington, the man behind the 2007 documentary film, "In the Shadow of the Moon,” said it’s pure myth that astronauts go crazy up there or come back to Earth not quite the same. In fact, he said that the biggest thing that will happen to an astronaut is that they come home with what he called "the ultimate perspective." But something weird does happen in space, and that’s what we discuss today, in this episode of the Infographics Show, Why do Astronauts Experience Space Puberty?
Right now, you’re likely not thinking too much about why astronauts experience space puberty, but what on earth is space puberty? Does this mean men and women in space have to go through that awkward stage in life again when hairs start popping-up in new places and all manner of things start changing in the body?
What it really means is, that while astronauts are up there in space they can actually grow taller, and quite a lot taller, too. NASA tells us that a 6-foot-tall (1.8 meters) astronaut could get 2 inches (5 centimeters) taller while in orbit. Maybe all you people out there who think you need to gain a little height for some sport, or just to be more attractive, are now thinking about becoming astronauts.
But, we should be careful about what we hear and believe. This year Japanese astronaut Norishige Kanai, while on a trip to the International Space Station said that he had grown a whopping 9 cm (3.5 inches). He later issued apologies saying that it wasn’t quite true, and he felt bad about the spread of fake news he had helped create. After nine months in space the 41-year old man wrote on Twitter, “My height’s been measured here in space and somehow, somehow, I’ve grown 9 cm! In only three weeks I’ve really shot up, something I haven’t seen since high school.” He even added that he was afraid he was so tall that he might not be able to fit into the Soyuz space vehicle seats.
This even had the experts stunned, as that seemed like a huge gain in height. Talking to the BBC, Libby Jackson of the UK Space Agency, said, “Nine centimetres is a lot, but it is possible, knowing that every human body is different.”
It turned out he had only grown .75 inch (2 cm). Kanai then wrote, “This mis-measurement appears to have become a big deal, so I must apologize for this terrible fake news.” He also said that he would indeed fit into his seat.
Still, he grew, so space puberty isn’t all fake news. Why do people grow in space?
Well, it’s got nothing to do with space itself but the environment astronauts experience in space relating to gravity. According to Gizmodo, these environments can also shrink your heart, fatten your eyeballs, and weaken muscles and bones. You get taller because the spine elongates. This is something NASA has known for a while, but now its started to do a lot more tests to see just what happens. While on the space station, astronauts will now monitor exactly how their bodies are changing. NASA said in a press release, “Today there is a new ultrasound device on the station that allows more precise musculoskeletal imaging required for assessment of the complex anatomy and the spine.”
It’s actually not good at all for the astronauts to change like this in space, as you can imagine, so NASA is hoping with this new kind of monitoring that rehabilitation will be easier when the astronauts get home. What happens with the spine is that when astronauts are not feeling the pull of Earth's gravity the vertebra starts to expand and this can lead to height gain. If that sounds good to you, you should also know that after a couple of months living with gravity again, that height gain will be lost.
Following the fake news and for some people the revelation that people grow in space, NASA set the record straight. The agency not only explained on its site what happens to the body in space, but also what can happen to the mind. The article starts with this ominous line, “Space is a dangerous, unfriendly place.” They’re not exactly selling a holiday in the Caribbean.
Here is a list of lovely things that can happen when you choose space as your next destination, and this is according to NASA: Radiation can increase your chance of getting cancer; muscles can deteriorate; you’ll eat nothing but yucky freeze-dried food for six months and you’ll do all this in confinement with three other people. Sounds like a vacation from hell, huh?
Well, hold onto your seats cos it gets a lot worse.
NASA says that transitioning from one gravity field to another is not easy at all, and it affects things like, “spatial orientation, head-eye and hand-eye coordination, balance, and locomotion.” Astronauts need to get as much exercise as they can when up there because without gravity you just start to wither away, and not only that, floating around is not good for your heart since it takes very little effort. Your vision might also be affected as fluids rise in your head.
It isn’t easy being an astronaut. NASA also says that the reason astronauts are so carefully chosen is because being up there for six months in cramped areas with just a small crew can be hard on the mind, even for those that have gone through all the training. This could result in depression, a negative effect on interpersonal interaction, and not being able to sleep. You are also working shifts and sometimes the workload is heavy, so NASA says there is no doubt fatigue will set in. And it’s not like you can call in sick and order a pizza. NASA concludes, “The more confined and isolated humans are, the more likely they are to develop behavioral or cognitive conditions, and psychiatric disorders.” You might actually get sick, too, as microorganisms that live on you are more easily passed to another. If that isn’t bad enough, NASA states that on the space station, astronauts are faced with ten times the radiation that they are on Earth. Space radiation could result in “nausea, vomiting, anorexia, and fatigue,” and to top it all off, the possibility of “cataracts, cardiac, and circulatory diseases.”
After hearing all this, would you be up for a 6-month stint on the International Space Station? Doesn’t sound quite as cozy as the USS Enterprise, does it? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!