Life on the Space Station: Listeners' Questions We follow up on last week's show about life on the international space station with answers to some listeners' questions about how space affects physiology.
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Life on the Space Station: Listeners' Questions

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Life on the Space Station: Listeners' Questions

Life on the Space Station: Listeners' Questions

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And here are the headlines from some of the stories we're following here today at NPR News. President Bush interrupted his vacation in Texas to visit the Sandia Laboratory near Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he signed the new energy bill into law. The president says the law will make a long-term contribution to the nation's energy independence. Also today, an interim report looking into corruption in the United Nations oil-for-food program further implicates the former head of that program. The report says Benon Sevan received nearly $150,000 in kickbacks. More on those stories and of course much more on other stories coming up later today on "All Things Considered" from NPR News.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, we'll look inside the upcoming Gaza pullout through the eyes of settlers, police, and the average citizens of Israel. It's politics and passions of the Gaza withdrawal, tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION.

Early this morning, NASA Mission Control decided the weather in Florida was too unpredictable to allow a shuttle landing. Tomorrow, the shuttle has four more possible windows for return, two each at Cape Canaveral and at the backup site at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Until then, the shuttle crew gets to enjoy a few more spins around the Earth. Judging from the number of questions we got during our program on the space station last week on life aboard it, there's a lot of curiosity about life in microgravity. This is the time on Monday when we usually read from your e-mails. Today, we'll try to both answer your unaddressed e-mail questions and take a few more of your calls on the biomedical aspects of space travel. If you have a question about how life in space affects the human body, our number is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is

And with us to tell us more about the physiological challenges of an orbital lifestyle, we turn to Louis Stodieck. He's director of the BioServe Space Technologies Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

And it's nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. LOUIS STODIECK (Director, BioServe Technologies Center): Thank you, Neal. It's nice to be here.

CONAN: To begin with, we were joking around this morning about the early shutdown time for the shuttle's toilet before re-entry. You can tell what kind of humor we have around here. But it turns out this is actually a big deal.

Mr. STODIECK: Well, yeah, I imagine that's probably going to be one of the priorities in staying up an extra day, to get that back up and running again.

CONAN: But hydration is a large factor in astronaut physiology, no?

Mr. STODIECK: It is. As it turns out, one of the first thing that happens when astronauts go into space is fluid shift. Basically, the blood that normally pools down in our lower extremities--you know, flows downhill, so to speak, when we stand or sit--ends up moving uphill or redistributing up into the head and chest region. And that causes the body to think that there's too much water and to get rid of it. And so what happens is astronauts will typically dehydrate by about a quart or so or a liter of blood volume. And that's not such a problem until they come back. And when they come back, without that extra blood volume, they're prone to dizziness and could even potentially pass out. So what they do is they rehydrate before they come back and drink about an extra liter and take some salt along with that to retain that water.

CONAN: Just at the same time they shut down the toilet.

Mr. STODIECK: Exactly.

CONAN: Well, that sort of answers the question we got from Paul Denning in Los Altos, California, who wrote to ask about sea sickness. I guess we should call it space sickness. Can near-zero gravity wreak havoc on the inner ear?

Mr. STODIECK: You know, it's not so much wreaking havoc on the inner ear as much as it's probably the inner ear wreaking havoc on the rest of the body, because once you get into space, all the normal cues that we're used to in that inner ear that's so sensitive to gravity and the direction that our heads are tilted, those cues are gone. And so we're looking with our eyes and we're feeling with our other senses, but the cues from the inner ear don't match up. And so that can lead to what's called space adaptation syndrome or sickness, and that happens to about half the astronauts.

CONAN: And how long does it last?

Mr. STODIECK: You know, they get over it within two or three days. And there is medicine that they can take to help minimize the symptoms of that. And...

CONAN: Is it the same medicine we'd put on a patch behind our ear if we were going out to sea?

Mr. STODIECK: Pretty much. It's pretty much the same types of medicines that we would use here. And then they take some things to keep them from getting sleepy because some of those medicines would make us sleepy otherwise.

CONAN: All right, let's get some callers in on the conversation. Again, if you'd like to join us, we're talking about the physiology of life in space. (800) 989-8255.

Now this is Jim calling from St. Louis.

JIM (Caller): Hello there, Neal.


JIM: Hello, folks. I'm a radio announcer in St. Louis and I'm about to go on the air, but this question has been bugging me ever since I saw a photo in Smithsonian magazine earlier this month of the untethered space walk back in whatever year it was--I think 1984. How can you possibly travel at 17,000 miles an hour without some kind of major damage to your body? And I'll take my answer off the air. Thank you.

CONAN: And good luck with your next announcement, Jim.

JIM: Thanks.

CONAN: Louis Stodieck?

Mr. STODIECK: Well, you know, of course it's not like we're traveling through our atmosphere at that speed, which would of course be very difficult. We're in a location where there's no atmosphere, and that 17,000 miles an hour essentially allows us to travel around the Earth in more or less a continuous free fall. So it's--you have no perception of that speed until you look at something outside. And in this case, the only thing they can look at to see how fast they're going is the Earth itself. And so you can see that you're traveling fast, but your body doesn't otherwise feel that.

CONAN: We're talking about the medical aspects of life in space. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Our guest is Louis Stodieck, director of BioServe Space Technologies Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Let's get another caller on the line. And this is Ron. Ron calling from Austin, Texas. Ron...

RON (Caller): Yes, hello?

CONAN: Yes, you're on the air, Ron. Go ahead.

RON: Hi. I have a question about the geomagnetic fields that are present on Earth. And I know that there are some common geomagnetic fields such as the one governed by the human resonance. And that's about eight hertz or so. And our bodies have adapted and evolved to accommodate these regular magnetic frequencies. And apparently these actually disappear when we're in space. And I was wondering if that is a factor in any way or if that's ever been noticed or if there are any technologies that have been used to adapt for that.

Mr. STODIECK: Well, Ron, I have to admit this is one that's outside of my area of expertise. I actually don't know much about any research that's been done there. You know, as far as I had understood, you know, the geomagnetic fields present in low Earth orbit are pretty similar to what they are on the Earth's surface. As you might know, you know, the space shuttle and space station are really not that far away from the planet, you know, at a couple of hundred miles. So--but this is one that I'm afraid I'm going to have to defer to somebody else to answer.

CONAN: OK. Thanks for the call, Ron.

Let's go now to Laura. Laura calling from Brooklyn Park, Missouri--is that it, Montana? Minnesota. Minnesota.

LAURA (Caller): Minnesota.

CONAN: There we go.

LAURA: Yeah, Minnesota. Good afternoon.

CONAN: I'll be able to read those little letters someday soon. Go ahead.

LAURA: I'm wondering what the physiological and emotional effects of being out in space would be and what exactly would cause it. I've heard some people refer to it as space dementia. Just wondering if it really does exist.

Mr. STODIECK: Well, you know, there are so many changes physiologically that occur to the body. You know, we have evolved of course with what we call unit gravity or Earth's gravity over quite a long period of time, and there are a number of changes that occur in our body that simply are a response to the fact that we no longer have that gravity as part of the mechanism. You know, astronauts will lose muscle if they don't exercise vigorously; they lose bone mass often even if they do exercise. I mentioned the blood shift that occurs very early on. And all of these things can probably contribute to, you know, different cues and different sensations that we might have in that very unusual environment. So I don't know about dementia per se, but as far as I know, the astronauts are able to work very well in that very unique environment and do things very effectively. But their bodies have to learn how to adapt to doing things differently and to traveling through the spacecraft differently and to even picking things out of the air differently and so forth.

CONAN: Well, this...


CONAN: ...may not relate to space dementia, but it is on a more pugnacious note. Aileen Journey of Easthampton, Massachusetts, wanted to know could you ever hit someone or have a fight in microgravity?

Mr. STODIECK: I suppose you could, but it would be very tricky because, of course, Newton's law that every action has a reaction. And so if you were to hit somebody and you couldn't brace yourself, then you would be flying back and a lot of the force that you might try to hit somebody with would be deflected back into you going backwards into the rear wall. So it would be very awkward at least.

CONAN: Laura, thanks very much.

Let's talk--see if we can squeeze in one last call. Jeffrey. Jeffrey in Persia, New York. We just have a few seconds, Jeffrey.

JEFFREY (Caller): OK. I was just wondering how much younger the astronauts will be than their counterparts that stayed on Earth during the trip because of their speed.

CONAN: A student of Einstein...

JEFFREY: You know, how much less will they age for this trip?

CONAN: A student of Einstein, relativity. Louis Stodieck, is this measurable?

Mr. STODIECK: Relatively--well, probably not because as you know, 17,000 miles per hour is still way below the speed of light. And so relativity probably has very little effect. Now I suppose if you were traveling that fast for a long, long period of time many, many years, perhaps it would be measurable, but somebody would have to do those calculations to see.

CONAN: Jeffrey, good question. Thanks very much.

JEFFREY: Thanks so much.

CONAN: Thank you very much, Louis Stodieck.

Mr. STODIECK: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Louis Stodieck directs the BioServe Space Technologies Center at the University of Colorado and joined us today from his office in Boulder.

If you have questions or comments for us, e-mail is the best way to reach us:


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

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