Science 26 Jun 2016 New frontier: Beyond ...

New frontier: Beyond gravity’s comfort

Published Jun 26, 2016, 1:04 am IST
Updated Jun 26, 2016, 1:04 am IST
Before we even think of conquering other planets in the vast Black, we must first deal with the painful after-effects of zero gravity.
Astronaut Tim Peake, who returned to Earth after six months in Space, is said to be nursing the ‘world’s worst hangover’.
 Astronaut Tim Peake, who returned to Earth after six months in Space, is said to be nursing the ‘world’s worst hangover’.

The Hollywood view of Space is probably quite different from reality. Maybe, after all the research they do to reflect what it is like out there, they still succumb to the temptation of dramatising events for sheer entertainment value. Whether it is Matt Damon or Sandra Bullock, they appear mostly to be realistically portraying what a dream it is to be up there in the Great Black  — 400 kms away from Earth, orbiting at around 24,000 kph and being a spectator to 16 spectacular sunrises and sunsets every 24 hours. The fantastic views you get from up there may certainly be one reason why everyone dreams of going to Space.

Apparently, the problem lies in returning. Take the case of Major Tim Peake. The British astronaut is back after six months on the International Space Station. Back on home soil, he is said to be nursing the ‘world’s worst hangover’, which on a scale of 1 to 10 should be closer to 10 and beating by some distance what the actors suffered in the Hangover films. A sort of weightlessness in the microgravity of the space station seems so hip and such fun watching everything float by the astronauts inside their home in space. Man’s dream of building a colony on Mars might mean that those who foray into such ventures as Space travel may not have to suffer what Peake is undergoing because it is unlikely they will ever have to come back.

 

Earth’s gravity, which keeps us all so grounded, is the first factor that militates against a quick readjustment when astronauts return. It is said it would take Peake a week at least to walk steadily on his feet — time needed to regain the sense of balance for which the vestibular system in the inner ear acts as radar. Recall kids with car sickness? Just pop a pill to reset the inner ear balance and voila, they are fine. It is, of course, a little more complicated for astronauts if they have lived for long where there is no ‘up’ or ‘down’.

Prolonged stay in zero gravity also causes weakening of muscle and bone mass and then there’s exposure to radiation that is the equivalent of 1,200 chest X-rays — a cancer risk. The psychological changes in human beings living in Space for considerable periods of time would probably be far more difficult to divine. All of them love the thrill of the trip though, including the tumble in Space in the descent module of the Soyuz TMA-19M spacecraft and the somewhat frightening noise levels of Russian technology. As Major Peake explained in a media conference, “The spacecraft really does blow itself apart, which is really quite exciting ... These pyrotechnic bolts are only a few millimetres of metal away from your ear when they go off.”

As the G-forces kick in, the experience is bound to bring about an adrenaline rush of thrill and fear as the module plunges back to Earth.

Stephen Hawking, resident genius on all things in Space and beyond is convinced that man must colonise other planets to survive as an Apocalypse or just simply the ‘The End of the World’ at the conclusion of Kaliyug is predicted for planet Earth. Maybe, just before then, humans would have conquered faraway places in Space to save themselves.

The experience of Space returnees might have proved useful then to have found out just what it takes to survive beyond Earth’s comforting gravity.

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