Permanent Human Settlement of the Earth, Space and Ocean Frontiers

Friday, February 17, 2006

The Nonsense of Weightlessness

The misconceptions about space exploration are many. One of the most pervasive ones is the idea of weightlessness. Most think it’s just too cool. They would be very wrong. I fully realize I am now treading on dangerous ground. The whole mystique of space is all wrapped around the axel of weightlessness. Unfortunately, most of what we have been told about this state called microgravity is just plain wrong. It's not at all fun.

The very first effect of the weightless state is nausea. Like seasickness, lasts about three days. Nearly all people are adversely affected by it. Then the body’s natural blood circulation is affected and the capillaries are flushed with fluids. The face and fingers get fat. Soon, the long term biomedical effects set in – immediate loss of bone density because they are no longer loaded by gravity which triggers natural bone building and strengthening. Then the muscles of the body begin to atrophy from lack of gravitational loading. This even includes the heart muscle. Some of this bone and muscle is lost forever and can never be recovered. Medically – there is no good reports about microgravity.

But that’s not all. There is even more bad news. Just plain living in microgravity is hell. Floating from one place to another is novel at first, but soon the inability to walk or the inability to even move easily from one place to another becomes irritating, according to many of the astronauts who have had to live there. After being merely irritating - it then slides into a day-to-day misery.

Simple things become very difficult – like taking a bath or a shower – which are nearly impossible. On earth there is a constant unseen battle that gravity always wins. It is called surface tension. In microgravity, surface tension wins every time. What happenes then? Liquids climb all over and coat every surface. Each time a liquid is touched, it will run up your skin. And that means every time you want to go to the bathroom, some of it will crawl around over your body.

I love the command in the movie ALIEN. It was simply, “Inertial damping to on.” In other words, “…flight engineer, hurry up and flip the artificial gravity switch and lets get on with what we came here to do.” Okay, I know... we'll talk about that switch here tomorrow.