Humans have dreamed about living among the stars since we were first able to gaze upwards and hold abstract thoughts about the curious lights we saw. Astronomy and other knowledge systems about the celestial bodies have been ubiquitous around the world throughout history, and in some ways a reverence and awe for the heavens above seems to be one of the universal characteristics of humankind. Neat.
It comes as a shock and a huge buzzkill, then, to learn that humans just aren’t really cut out for living in space. Long-term exposure to the environment of outer space has been found to cause all sorts of serious health problems like damaged immune systems, mysterious space fevers, and even altered DNA. Yikes. One study out of Florida State University even found that former astronauts die as a result of cardiovascular ailments at a much higher rate than the general population. Is the chance to leave the Earth for a little while worth the health risks?
Yeah, I know. It’s totally worth it. Still, the health risks astronauts face are a huge barrier towards ever sustaining long-term space stations, colonies on the Moon or Mars, or perhaps someday sending generations of travelers away from the dying Earth to find a new home aboard interstellar ark starships. Perhaps someday sooner than we think…
NASA scientists this week identified one more threat that astronauts must face in the harsh, cold vacuum of space: herpes. Space herpes. Medical researchers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center found that herpes viruses reactivated in more than half of the crew members sent to the International Space Station as a direct result of their time in space. According to Dr. Satish K. Mehtahe who authored the new study of space herpes and other spaceflight-related virus reactivations, the phenomenon is thought to stem from the stress the human body faces during spaceflight and made worse by the discomfort of living aboard a cramped space station. Like any other stress Mehtahe says, this weakens astronauts’ immune responses and allows dormant viruses to flourish:
NASA astronauts endure weeks or even months exposed to microgravity and cosmic radiation—not to mention the extreme G forces of take-off and re-entry. This physical challenge is compounded by more familiar stressors like social separation, confinement and an altered sleep-wake cycle. During spaceflight there is a rise in secretion of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which are known to suppress the immune system. In keeping with this, we find that astronaut's immune cells—particularly those that normally suppress and eliminate viruses—become less effective during spaceflight and sometimes for up to 60 days after.
Hopefully one day the people of the future will look back and laugh at the primitive 21st-century humans who had to launch flaming tubes of volatile gases into the air just to reach outer space. We'll find a better way soon. EM Drive-powered craft? Space elevators? They've been discussed for years, and I’m sure we’re only a few decades away from Star Trek-like teleportation, right? All of that kooky quantum stuff has got to lead to something someday.
Ultimately, it will be more likely that we’ll find ways to genetically alter the human genome to make our squishy little bodies more conducive to space flight. Well, the bodies of those who can afford the treatment. As the first humans begin to flee the stink of the hot, dying Earth, it will be the mega-rich who will have access to the means to secure a ticket on the interstellar ark. The rest of us will be stuck here forever, doomed to only gaze longingly at the skies like so many Earthbound humans have done for eons. Look on the bright side, though: at least you won’t have space herpes to worry about. It's gotta be, like, the second worst herpes there is.