7 Strange Things That Happen to Your Body in Space

Space travel can cause behavior changes, bone loss, rashes and more.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos will travel to space with the first crew of the New Shepard, a rocket developed by his suborbital flight company, Blue Origin. The launch, set to take place July 20, 2021, marks a new era of private commercial space travel.

To prepare for the relatively brief 11-minute flight, Bezos and crew will undergo three days of intense training. That prep is necessary because space exploration can have peculiar effects on our health. Astronauts who travel further into space, meanwhile, typically prepare for years before they’re ready for liftoff.

Even during a short space mission, the effects on the human body can be profound. Here are seven strange things that can happen.

You may experience dangerous radiation exposure

The Earth's atmosphere shields us from most cosmic radiation, such as the sun’s ultraviolet rays. That’s a good thing, since exposure can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, central nervous system damage, cancer and more.

The good news is that space suits protect against ultraviolet radiation. Other space radiation, however, such as galactic cosmic radiation, can penetrate several centimeters of skin—and even through space suits and spaceship shielding material. Though Bezos and crew won’t bear the brunt experienced by deeper space astronauts, one study of Apollo mission astronauts found that cosmic radiation caused blood vessel damage. The astronauts even demonstrated a higher cardiovascular mortality rate.

You may lose bone and muscle

An astronaut can lose more than 1 percent of their bone mass in a single month of space travel, thanks to decreased physical activity. This reduction begins just two or three days after liftoff. A space mission of 5 to 11 days can also cause a staggering 20 percent loss of muscle mass, according to NASA.

What’s more, it has been reported that such muscle degeneration can actually cause the heart to shrink. Astronaut Scott Kelly’s heart lost 27 percent of its size after he spent most of 2015 and part of 2016 on the International Space Station. (Don’t worry—he was ultimately fine.)

These losses make exercise especially important for astronauts, since it helps them avoid atrophy of bones and muscles. In fact, they typically work out for a whopping 150 minutes each day, using a variety of equipment specially designed for environments with very little gravity.

Astronauts also eat a diet rich in calcium and vitamin D to combat their increased risk of osteoporosis, a condition characterized by decreased bone density and porous bones.

Sleeping becomes a challenge

Due to new surroundings, long flight times, loud mechanical noise and high stress, many astronauts experience disturbed sleep, sleep deprivation and long-lasting fatigue. They're often only able to get six out of the seven to nine recommended hours of sleep each night. 

Your behavior changes

Flying a spacecraft may sound like fun but being confined to such a small area can leave explorers feeling isolated, cramped and stressed. The close quarters and potential for grievous error can hurt interpersonal relationships, too, making astronauts act irritably toward each other. This change in behavior can also carry over to Earth, which is one reason astronauts must receive psychological evaluations as part of their training.

Several studies dealing with mental health issues and space travel have suggested that interaction with space debris and other stressors puts astronauts at greater risk for developing psychiatric conditions. To deal with potential troubles, spaceships carry anti-anxiety and antipsychotic medications on board.

Vision could get worse

It’s believed that being in space causes pressure along the optic nerve, which can result in blurred vision and, in some cases, permanent damage to the eyes. One NASA survey of both short- and long-flight astronauts found many had problems seeing things up close and far away during flights. For some, those issues persisted once they had returned to the ground.

In a separate, small study involving crew members from a long-term flight, NASA found the backs of some astronauts' eyeballs had flattened, in addition to other changes. The same thing was observed in a 2016 study of astronauts on the International Space Station. Two-thirds of the space travelers reported eye troubles, often the result of flattening.

Immune systems weaken and congestion increases

High levels of radiation, increased stress, confined spaces and lack of gravity can increase allergy symptoms and the possibility of skin conditions, such as rashes. Some experts even theorize that longer missions could result in a heightened risk of infections or autoimmune problems down the road.

Not only does space change your immune system, but the air pressure inside the spacecraft can cause the fluids in your body to spread out and move toward your head. This could lead to a puffy face and congestion, which should return to normal once back on Earth.

Space makes you taller

If you feel short here on your home planet, consider taking a trip through the galaxy. Since gravity isn’t as strong in space, it allows your spine to relax and stretch instead of being pushed down, as it would on Earth. The result is temporary growth of about 3 percent of your actual height over a year, or about 2 inches for most adults. Before you get too excited, though, keep in mind that you'll go back to your original height when you return home. 

Readjusting to Earth’s conditions after a trip to space isn’t easy. Recovering from the health effects of even a short journey takes a few days—and the longer you’re there, the longer it takes to adjust to being back home.

Article sources open article sources

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NASA.gov. “Why Space Radiation Matters.” October 8, 2019. Accessed June 17, 2020.
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M Delp, JM Charvat, et al. “Apollo Lunar Astronauts Show Higher Cardiovascular Disease Mortality: Possible Deep Space Radiation Effects on the Vascular Endothelium.” Science Reports. July 28, 2016. 6:29901.
M Meerman, TCL Bracco Gartner, et al. “Myocardial Disease and Long-Distance Space Travel: Solving the Radiation Problem.” Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine. February 12, 2021. 8:631985.
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NASA.gov. “Preventing Bone Loss in Space Flight with Prophylactic use of Bisphosphonate: Health Promotion of the Elderly by Space Medicine Technologies.” March 27, 2019. Accessed June 17, 2021.
NASA Information. “Muscle Atrophy.” 2021. Accessed June 17, 2021.
Theresa Machemer. “How Space Travel Shrank Astronaut Scott Kelly’s Heart.” Smithsonian Magazine. April 1, 2021.
JP MacNamara, KA Dias, et al. “Cardiac Effects of Repeated Weightlessness During Extreme Duration Swimming Compared With Spaceflight.” Circulation. 2021;143:1533–1535.
SM Smith, T McCoy, et al. “Space Flight Calcium: Implications for Astronaut Health, Spacecraft Operations, and Earth.” Nutrients. December 18, 2012. 4(12): 2047-2068.
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NASA.gov. “Bones in Space.” April 10, 2009. Accessed June 10, 2021.
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