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Astronaut David Saint-Jacques: mysteries we need to solve before sending people to Mars


Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques explained what it means for the human body to leave Earth and what mysteries we need to figure out before sending people to Mars.

“It is fun to fly around, but it is just bad for your body,” he said. Saint-Jacques returned from the International Space Station in June 2019.

Everyone is craving for personalized and local medicine, and the importance of telemedicine only grew in the face of the pandemic. Space agencies, such as NASA, are in the lead trying to figure out how to help people remotely. There are many things they need to figure out before sending the first human mission to Mars.

Saint-Jacques became an astronaut 12 years ago. Before that, he was a physician. By the way, he had to dust off his medical license during the pandemic and joined the medical force in one of the Montreal hospitals. Being a doctor, Saint-Jacques explained, helped him deal with the pressure that astronauts are constantly exposed to.

“Throughout astronaut training, it has helped me because I had knowledge that I can handle emergency procedures having been through them, and the anxiety of needing to decide in life and death situations,” he said during the Collision tech conference.

Even though medical knowledge has helped him, being an astronaut is fundamentally different from being a doctor.

“The essential difference is that when you are a pilot, you essentially fear for your own life, As a physician, you want to do the right thing, but it is not your life under the line. That does make the difference. You have to learn to function despite that fear for your life,” he explained.

David Saint-Jacques

Going to space is hard for the body. Over the millions of years, humans evolved in the presence of gravity, under the protection of ozone and the magnetic field of the Earth.

“When we put a human body outside of that, all sorts of things go wrong. Essentially, it amounts to accelerating aging. You become a virtual couch-potato, so all the ill effects of a sedentary lifestyle affect you. Because you are floating around without feeling the effects of gravity, which is fun, your body loses the ability to maintain bone and muscle strength, ligament, all of that,” Saint-Jacques explained.

Once a body understands it doesn’t need a strong structure anymore, it stops wasting energy maintaining it.

“You lose your bone, muscle mass, a lot of your postural muscle, all the complicated architecture in your spine so you can walk and dance, and play basketball, and go skiing. All of that fades away if you are not careful,” the astronaut explained.

Moreover, astronauts are exposed to radiation during their missions to the International Space Station, so, as Saint-Jacques put it, it makes you play Russian roulette with cancer eventually.

Social isolation only ads on the challenge to ensure astronauts’ health..

“The first trick was to pick very healthy people to start from and make sure they are at the top of their health. But then we are very careful with procedures. Everything we do is dangerous. We are so careful not to have an accident, not to hurt ourselves,” he explained.

Some years ago, astronauts were bed-bound upon returning from their missions. Nowadays, astronauts work out for at least two hours a day during their missions to maintain bone and muscle strength.

“Most people are walking around just as if nothing happened after a week upon return. That is great,” he said.

But there are still some mysteries that scientists need to figure out, especially before sending human missions to Mars.

“After two weeks in microgravity, you completely lose your sense of balance. It gets disconnected. It comes back after landing, but it takes a while, and it makes you hopeless. It feels like being drunk without the alcohol.”

Another problem is orthostasis. When you walk on Earth, because of gravity, blood easily travels to your feet, and your body has a way to maintain good perfusion to your brain regardless of that.

“When you go to space, that means you get too much blood going up your head as if you were hanging from a monkey bar on the playground, and you get the big red puffy face and white, skinny legs. And then your body learns to offset that, and then you are okay again. But once you come back to Earth, boom, you forgot how to pump blood to your head more, it all falls to your legs, and you have got big red feet, and you are all pale, ashen, and you want to faint,” Saint-Jacques explained.

When he landed on Earth in 2019, there was a whole team of nurses and doctors waiting for him, so the recovery process was easy and smooth. But people who will be sent to Mars will be on their own for a while.

“They are going to have to help themselves, and we do not know yet how to make sure that they regain their balance and their orthostatic pressure. Plus, there are more mysteries, I could go on and on. There are some weird visual effects. For example, about 15% of astronauts get permanent visual defects, not quite sure why, maybe because of the increased pressure in the neurological fluid,” Saint-Jacques said.

NASA is aiming to start human missions to Mars in the 2030s.


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