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December 18, 2017

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‘Space blindness’ must be solved before mission to Mars, scientist says

Image

NASA / AP

This provided image shows NASA’S “Journey to Mars,” a project to send humans to the red planet by the 2030s.

To boldly go where no one has gone before, you need to see where you are going.

Research performed on the International Space Station shows prolonged time in space can cause temporary, and sometimes permanent, blindness, said the space station’s chief scientist recently on “Nevada Newsmakers.”

“One of the things we discovered in the last 10 years is that some astronauts, when they go into space, actually have vision loss,” said Julie Robinson, the chief scientist of the ISS. “A few of those astronauts have permanent vision loss that isn't reversed when they turn to Earth.”

Vision loss looms as a major problem to be solved if man is to ever land on Mars, said Robinson, a graduate of UNR. Potential blindness appears to stem from how associated fluids in the body react in prolonged weightlessness, she said.

“It is a disease process that we have never seen on Earth,” Robinson said. “It is completely new to science, and we are really trying to understand it so we can someday send humans safely to Mars and have them able to carry out the mission successfully.”

The issue may be a surprise to some and has not been well publicized because of medical-privacy concerns of astronauts, she said.

“We generally don’t report single individuals, so you would not hear it in that kind of media thing because we protect their medical privacy,” Robinson said.

Yet it is an issue that scientists have been working to solve for years, Robinson said. The potential of vision loss in zero-gravity environments was not discovered early in manned space missions because astronauts’ short trips did not trigger the condition, she said.

 Julie A. Robinson, chief scientist for the International Space Station

Julie A. Robinson, chief scientist for the International Space Station

“It was about five years ago that we first reported the pattern that we’ve seen,” she said. “It took a while to see that pattern. Humans have been flying in space for a long time now, but we missed the pattern, first because the humans were going for a short period of time and secondly, we thought, ‘Oh, they are just getting old.’”

At first, scientists thought it was a minor issue, but not anymore.

“We thought it was reversible,” Robinson said. “We just didn’t realize that it was a real problem until we started having enough experience on the space station, since it doesn’t happen in everybody.

“We had a few crew members coming home with such significant vision loss that people realized that it wasn’t normal,” Robinson said. “And then we started looking into those, doing extra imaging, some spinal taps on astronauts, and found out they had really high spinal pressures and we realized there was something going on here that really mattered.”

In Russia’s area of the space station, a U.S. ultrasound and a Russian device are being used to find a solution. Robinson said the Russian device is “essentially a pair of sucking pants that can draw the fluids back down into their legs for a short period of time.

“We use the U.S. ultrasound to watch their fluids moving through the body, through their veins as it happens and then we use special devices to measure their eyes as well to try to understand what is going on in this process.”

In addition to “space blindness,” other health concerns, radiation exposure and radiation shielding are among the issues that must be solved before humans venture to Mars, she said.

“In the next 30 years, (a mission to Mars) is absolutely realistic,” Robinson said. “If someone handed me a rocket to Mars today, I would not be ready to be able to send the crew with it because we still would not have enough knowledge from the space station and from other tests to be able to operate.”

Ray Hagar is a retired political journalist from the Reno Gazette-Journal and current reporter/columnist for the Nevada Newsmakers podcast and website, nevadanewsmakers.com. Follow Ray on Twitter at @RayHagarNV.