Are You Healthy Enough to Be a Space Tourist?

As commercial spaceflight inches closer to becoming a reality, Jan Stepanek, M.D., explains the potential hazards and risks that may be associated with space travel.

If you've dreamed of becoming a space cowboy, your chance may be coming. As the world celebrates the anniversary of the first moon landing, a recent Wired headline proclaimed "2019 is the year that space tourism finally becomes a reality." If the publication is correct, the only thing standing between you and weightlessness could be a cool $200,000 to $300,000. That means average Jacks and Jills (with above-average bank accounts) will be able to sign on for an adventure that used to be reserved for highly trained, specially selected astronauts.

And as commercial spaceflight becomes a reality, those wannabe space travelers will turn to their primary care providers to find out "if they have what it takes to blast off," according to Cosmos Magazine. "Doctors therefore will need to be familiar with the potential hazards and risk of space travel, and to assess each patient's ability to withstand them." The magazine reports that a recent New England Journal of Medicine article by Jan Stepanek, M.D., an aerospace medicine specialist at Mayo Clinic, aims to do just that by providing "the practicing clinician with an appreciation of the unique medical and environmental challenges" of spaceflight.

"Civilian spaceflight is a new frontier," Dr. Stepanek tells ECN, a publication for the electronic design community. "There are a lot of unknowns and reasons to be cautious." He outlines some of those in the NEJM article. During short trips into space — those lasting just a few minutes — Dr. Stepanek says the major challenges facing passengers are likely to be minor, such as motion sickness, anxiety and discomfort during takeoff.

But longer trips could result in "clinically significant physiological adaptations and alterations of the human body," Dr. Stepanek writes. "Prolonged exposure to microgravity can lead to a slight lengthening of the vertebral spine and skeletal deconditioning" as well as "loss of bone mineralization." There also have been "several case reports of urinary retention," which have required "a temporary period of self-catheterization." This, Dr. Stepanek writes, "may greatly reduce the enjoyment of the flight" for "the lay participant." (We should think so.)

Another challenge facing space travelers is access to medical equipment and expertise in the event of an emergency. "The probability of a successful medical evacuation or complex longer-term care while on board the space vehicle is low," Dr. Stepanek and his colleagues say.

In spite of those (and other) stressors facing would-be astronauts, "the brief suborbital commercial flights that are in development for the broad public are expected to be safe for healthy individuals," Dr. Stepanek tells Forbes. "Participants with chronic medical conditions of varying nature and severity are the group that will require close collaboration between the space medicine specialists and the participants' primary health care provider to define what risks may be of importance and what risk threshold might preclude participation."

You can hear Dr. Stepanek talk more about the impact of space travel on the body here. Then don't space leaving a comment for us below before you use the social media tools to float this story to others.