We have entered into a new age of space exploration, in which the commercialization of space travel has opened up the possibility that within a generation, space tourism will become a normal part of human existence. Yet, space travel does not come without a price. According to Futurism, astronauts are not able to recover their bone strength and trabecular microarchitecture at the distal tibia a year after returning from a long duration spaceflight. 

What Was the Study?

The study was conducted by Gabel Leigh and a team of other researchers from the University of Calgary in Canada. The results of the study are certainly very troubling and point to largely undiscussed risks borne by astronauts and which obviously be borne by commercial travelers if ever they went through long duration spaceflight.

The study is important because it aimed at finding the specific risks to long-term skeletal health taken on by astronauts in prolonged spaceflight. 

The study was conducted by tracking the experience of 14 male and 3 female astronauts whose average age at the time of the study was 47. These astronauts had been on a spaceflight for between four and seven months. 

The team studied the bone strength, density, and microarchitecture of the astronauts using a high-resolution peripheral quantitative computed tomography. The team then developed images of the tibia and radius before spaceflight, when the astronauts had returned to Earth, and after periods of 6- and 12-months, to examine for recovery and assess biomarkers of their bone turnover and exercise. 

A year after the flight, the researchers found that the astronaut’s median tibia bone strength, total, cortical, and trabecular bone mineral density (BMD), trabecular bone volume fraction and thickness were still 0.9% to 2.1% down from what they were before they embarked on their spaceflight. Those astronauts who had spent at least 6 months on a mission showed the poorest levels of bone recovery. For instance, the group median tibia bone strength of astronauts a year who had been on missions shorter than 6 months was lower by 0.4%, whereas those longer missions still had a 3.9% decline post-flight. 

The researchers found similar changes for total, trabecular, and cortical BMD. They noted that nine of the astronauts had not fully recovered their tibia total BMD after a year. Those astronauts who had not fully recovered displayed higher biomarkers of bone turnover compared to those who had recovered. 

What Does the Study Show?

The study shows that astronauts who undertake long-term missions face enormous risks to their long-term skeletal health, with most facing the equivalent of a decade-long deterioration in skeletal health. 

This is very consequential because recent commercial space travel has accelerated. It suggests that at minimum, changes should be made to how astronauts are prepared for these journeys. The researchers believe that a greater emphasis on weightlifting will allow astronauts to be better prepared for these journeys and also to recover quickly afterwards. This could be the basis of an excellent online course for your students using the comic strip maker, StoryboardThat. With it, you could help students reimagine astronauts not just as space travelers but also as weightlifters, because that’s how we ensure that they recover from these spaceflights. StoryboardThat could be used to teach and build a whole course on the costs of space travel for astronauts.

Without at least some changes and more investigation we will not be able to secure the long-term skeletal health of our astronauts.