There is only one photograph of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, and in it, he has his back to the camera.
The first man to set foot on a planetary body other than Earth was not camera shy. It was just that for most of the time he and Buzz Aldrin were exploring the moon in July 1969, the checklist called for Armstrong to have their only camera.
When the news broke Saturday that Armstrong, 82, had passed away, it is likely that many people’s memories of the first man on the moon were of black and white television images or color film stills. If they did recall a photo captured during the Apollo 11 moonwalk, it was almost certainly one of Aldrin, whether it was of him saluting the flag or looking down at his bootprint.
In fact, perhaps the most iconic photo taken of an astronaut on the surface of the moon is also of Aldrin. A posed shot, he is facing the camera with the reflection of his photographer, Armstrong, caught in Aldrin’s golden helmet visor.
Of course, there were photographs taken of Neil Armstrong at other points during the moon flight, and on his previous mission, Gemini 8. Cameras were ready when he was named an astronaut seven years before walking on the moon, and were more than ever present after he returned to Earth as a history-making hero.
A few of those other photos ran alongside obituaries in the numerous newspapers that told of Armstrong’s death in their Sunday editions. But they — the photos, not necessarily the obituaries — only told part of the story. A great many lesser seen photos capture Armstrong as the research pilot, astronaut, engineer and, as his family described in a statement, “a reluctant American hero.”
To help illustrate that record, collectSPACE.com asked RetroSpaceImages.com to search its extensive archives of NASA photographs and pick out those that showed the Armstrong that the public didn’t always get to see. The three dozen photos they chose have been presented chronologically, with one exception: The gallery begins with the rare photo of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. Where are space shuttle Atlantis’ launch director and mission management team today? Continue reading at collectSPACE.com.
Turkey and all the trimmings are a staple for Americans on Thanksgiving, and that doesn’t have to change for Americans in space.
Astronaut food has come a long way from the early days of human spaceflight, and crewmembers on the International Space Station these days can enjoy many Turkey Day traditions, such as cornbread stuffing, yams, mashed potatoes, cherry blueberry cobbler, and, of course, turkey itself.
This year, NASA astronaut Kevin Ford, commander of the space station’s Expedition 34 mission, will celebrate with his Russian crewmates Evgeny Tarelkin and Oleg Novitskiy.
“Thanksgiving is not a holiday that the Russians celebrate, but we have found that on orbit the crewmembers celebrate each others’ holidays,” said Vickie Kloeris, manager of the Space Food Systems Laboratory at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “They will take part in Kevin Ford’s celebration of Thanksgiving, just as American crewmembers will take part in some of the Russian holidays.”
The space station’s Thanksgiving delicacies will come in somewhat different forms than what may be on most holiday tables, though. Space food falls into two categories: freeze-dried (just add water) or thermostabilized (comes in a pouch). And all food sent to the space station has to meet certain microbiological requirements and have a sufficient shelf life.
For example, the cornbread dressing on offer is a replacement for the traditional bread-based stuffing that many people are used to. However, break makes too many crumbs that float around in all directions in weightlessness and are difficult to clean up.
Still, the current Thanksgiving menu is a huge improvement over what earlier space travelers had available.
“If you want to go all the way back to Mercury and Gemini, there were no holiday meals back then,” Kloeris told SPACE.com. “All you had was cube foods and tube foods. We’ve definitely expanded greatly the amount of traditional items that we have made available for holiday times, and that only makes sense because when we started having crewmembers stay on space station long term, we knew every year we’d be hitting Thanksgiving and Christmas with somebody.”
In addition to the standard holiday menu items, each astronaut gets a certain number of “bonus containers” to pack whatever particular foods they’d like, provided they meet the basic requirements. Most pack off-the-shelf products like cookies and other treats.
“We have crewmembers who take icing in tubs and cookies, and they’ll ice them at Christmas time,” Kloeris said. “We’ve even had crewmembers take food coloring so they could color the icing.”
The importance of having traditional holiday foods varies from crewmember to crewmember, she said. “That’s always evident when they go to plan their bonus containers. You immediately know who has the strongest ties to holiday food because they’ll be the first ones to bring up the fact that, ‘Hey, I’m going to be up there at Christmas.'”
Each of the holiday foods that are provided by NASA have made it through a thorough vetting process.
It starts with a basic recipe for, say, cherry blueberry cobbler. Then the NASA food scientists modify the recipe so that it can be packed in pouches, which is similar to canning. After that, they test its texture, color, and taste.
“When it goes through the thermostabilizing process, the chemistry of the food changes quite a bit,” Kloeris said. “Often what happens is we’ll take a formulation and we’ll try it afterwards, and it’s like, ‘No, that’s not acceptable.'”
The scientists often have to go through many iterations of a recipe, including scaling it up so it still tastes good if made in large batches, before a food is ready for orbit. And some recipes just never quite make it.
“We tried for a while to come up with thermostabilized cheesecake, and we just flat gave up on it,” Kloeris said. “The color changes we got were just too severe. Not everything works.”
But other foods that are stereotypically associated with space are actually rarely eaten there.
“The freeze-dried ice cream actually only flew once” on an Apollo mission, when a crewmember requested it, Kloeris said. “It’s more like hard cotton candy. Certainly if [astronauts] wanted to request that they could, but that’s not something that adults want. Kids like it; they sell it at the gift shop.”
There’s a lot to learn from living in space, but only so many get to have the experience firsthand. In order to share what they’ve seen with curious students, the three Chinese astronauts currently in orbit have delivered a lesson from space to students and countrymen on Earth.
The Shenzhou 10 astronauts (or “taikonauts”) beamed down China’s first live space science lesson video to 330 elementary and middle school children in Beijing from their position onboard the nation’s Tiangong 1 space module. More than 60 million students and teachers also watched the televised broadcast from around China, according to the state-run news agency Xinhua.
Nie Haisheng and Wang Yaping — the second Chinese woman to fly to space — demonstrated the high points of weightlessness during the lecture while Zhang Xiaoguang photographed the lesson, which was broadcast live on China’s state-run CCTV news channel.
“In a weightless environment, we are very skillful marshal artists,” Wang said after Nie floated around the lab in various positions.
Wang showed the students how water behaves in space, creating a bubble of liquid to demonstrate the properties of surface tension while in microgravity.
“Okay everybody, this is where magic happens,” Wang said as she held up a bubble of water trapped within a metal ring.
Wang engaged the students by asking questions throughout the nearly hourlong lecture. Students discussed how they weigh themselves on Earth before the taikonaut demonstrated how the space flyers weigh objects in microgravity.
The astronauts also took questions from their student audience.
“Do you enjoy any view that’s different from what you can see on the Earth?” one student asked Wang. “Do the stars twinkle, and do you see the UFOs?”
“From the window, we can see the beautiful Earth and the sun, the moon and the stars, but we haven’t seen the UFO,” Wang said. “As we are now in outer space without the atmosphere, we can see the stars shining brightly, but they do not twinkle.” China’s Shenzhou 10 crew launched into orbit on June 11 for a 15-day stint in space. Tiangong 1 is expected to remain in service for another three months, after which it will be deorbited or destroyed, experts have said.
This trip marks China’s fifth manned spaceflight. China’s first astronaut, Yang Liwei, launched into orbit in 2003, making China the third nation to launch astronauts into space using its own vehicles after Russia and the United States.
The Tiangong 1 space lab has been orbiting Earth since September 2011 and is considered China’s first step on the way toward building a large space laboratory by about 2020.
Its easy to assume that astronauts float in space because they are far away from the Earths gravitational force. But look at the moon. It is much further away than the International Space Station, yet it orbits around the Earth because it is perpetually attracted by its gravitational pull. So if the Earths gravity can affect the moon, the astronauts cannot be floating because there is no gravity where they are.
Gravity is an attractive force, which is always present between two objects that have a mass. Its such a weedy force, however, that we need huge objects such as planets or moons to realise its there at all. We usually describe the acceleration of an object with mass towards the centre of the Earth by Earths gravitational pull with the constant g it is just less than 10 metres per second squared. This pull decreases as the distance between the objects increases. But to get rid of it entirely we would have to go an infinite distance away from anything with any mass.
However, we can create environments in which we dont experience the effects of gravity. Usually people refer to such microgravity environments as zero-g, because they make objects appear weightless. But what does it actually mean to be weightless? The thing about forces is that you only notice them when there is another force counteracting them. Since you have a mass, the Earths gravitational pull is always accelerating you towards its centre. Luckily, the ground is in the way. But if there was nothing to stop you from falling, you wouldnt feel the ground push back and you would feel weightless.
This is the first way to get rid of gravity: free fall! Some people think of skydiving, but in fact a skydiver is never really in free fall air drag can slow objects down. For scientific experiments, however, researchers can overcome the air resistance issue by pumping out air from a huge tower, some 150m high. Then they shoot experiments up to the top of the tower – and drop them yep its called a drop tower. The experiment, and everything inside it, is in microgravity as it falls for about four seconds until BANG, it hits the ground. That violent end means the type of experiments scientists do in drop towers need to survive regular crashes, which is not always ideal.
Another way to achieve free fall is to put things into orbit (such as the International Space Station). A force, called the centrifugal force, pushes an object travelling in a circle away from the centre of the motion. Go around a corner fast on your bike and if you dont lean into the bend youll find it difficult to stay on the bike and steer at the same time lean too far and the wheels will get pushed out from underneath you. Its all a matter of balancing forces.
So, an object in free fall orbiting the Earth at just the right speed and altitude can appear weightless. This is the case with the ISS. Here, astronauts and everything else in it all travel in free fall, making it an amazing microgravity science laboratory.
But why do scientists need microgravity? The majority of processes on Earth are influenced in some way by gravity, which means exploiting microgravity environments for research is a clever way to learn more about the way in which the world around us works.
There have been some amazing research firsts already. Materials scientists looking at how metals interact in alloys in microgravity, for example, have created lighter components in turbine blades in aircraft engines. Time accuracy on Earth is also being improved by the presence of atomic clocks in space and medical instruments first developed to test the pressure in astronauts’ skulls are now used to monitor head-trauma patients in hospitals.
In my own research, we use microgravity to tackle the conundrum of how planets form. We know from observations that the dominating material in planet-forming regions is small grains of dust and ice. So, how can we stick those together to form a planet? So far, we can explain why very small things (< mm) stick together that works pretty much like chemical bonding and why very big things (> km) stick together gravity. The problem is, how do we get from grains of mm sizes to km sizes? We dont know.
And it turns out experiments on Earth are difficult as the particles are so fragile and slow that the dust grains will soon break apart or simply hit the ground because of gravity. We are therefore using a microgravity environment created by something called a parabolic flight, in which test pilots with special training very carefully adjust the flight path to follow a curve that produces the feeling of weightlessness for those inside the plane. This feeling lasts for about 22 seconds so they are repeated again and again at least 31 times per flight like a three-hour rollercoaster ride. While we have successfully collided particles in this way, we havent managed to make them stick yet. But stay tuned.
While the future of Earth-bound microgravity environments is assured as long as they can be funded, the lifetime of the ISS is currently confirmed only until 2020-2024. So whats next? Some major companies are developing space planes, which could take tourists to the edge of space for a few minutes to experience weightlessness. But such flights are also ideal opportunities for scientists to conduct experiments. Likewise, nano-satellite industries are looking to build small cheap satellites, which could potentially also be used for scientific experiments. Its a pretty exciting time to do microgravity research.
In their last days on Earth before launching to the International Space Station, astronauts sees the same thing: two rows of trees that punctuate the otherwise austere landscape outside the space launch facility in Baikonur, Russia.
The trees that outline the T-shaped path are mismatched in size, but that’s for a reason. Each one was planted by an astronaut just before he or she launched to space, a tradition that Yuri Gagarin started 50 years ago when he planted the first tree just before he became the first human in space. His tree is the largest.
A fresh three-member crew — Russian cosmonaut Maxim Suraev, NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman and European astronaut Alexander Gerst — will launch to the ISS on Wednesday. All three astronauts planted their trees last week.
“There’s a whole wealth of Russian traditions,” NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn, who planted a tree before his mission in 2012, told Mashable. “Some are funny, some are beautiful.”
Many Russian traditions are based on the success of what a cosmonaut did before. “In a lot of ways, it’s about honoring the person who came before you,” Marshburn said.
The simple ceremony always takes place shortly before launch, no matter the environment. Be it a harsh Russian winter or an even colder political standoff, the tree will be planted.
But given the current political climate between the U.S. and Russia, these trees have a deeper meaning within the space community, which, until very recently, has been able to operate above bureaucratic squabble.
As the U.S. continues to unleash sanctions against Russia for its involvement in the crisis in Ukraine, both nations have put targets on the backs of each other’s space programs.
In April, NASA sent a memo to employees stating that it was cutting all ties with Russia, except for when it comes to the space station — as the U.S. depends on Russia to launch its astronauts to the ISS.
“We’re now looking at launching from U.S. soil in 2017,” NASA spokesperson Allard Beutel told Mashable in April. “The choice here is between fully funding the plan to bring space launches back to America or continuing to send millions of dollars to the Russians. It’s that simple.”
Although NASA, at the time, said politics wouldn’t make it to the space station, Russia unveiled a different plan just weeks later. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin told reporters on May 13 that Moscow would deny U.S. requests to use the ISS after 2020. He also said he would prevent the U.S. from using Russian-made rocket engines to launch military satellites.
Astronauts, however, have subtly voiced their continued commitment to teamwork — a seemingly passive protest to the two countries’ efforts to drag the ISS into their battle.
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who planted his own tree alongside Marshburn, is among the most vocal. In an April interview with RT, the ISS commander condemned weaponizing space.
And just hours after the news broke that Russia wanted to ban the U.S. from the ISS — coincidentally, that was on the same day a crew of both American and Russian astronauts was returning to Earth — Hadfield tweeted this:
And just on day after the U.S. issued its first round of sanctions against Russia, NASA released the photo below before a scheduled launch, showing the two flags together.
“Living in space really does break down barriers,” Marshburn said. “It is a family up there. We have to survive.”
Even NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in March — around the time Russia invaded Crimea — that the space station has been the cornerstone of peaceful relations.
During a press conference, Bolden, who commanded the first U.S.-Russian space shuttle mission in 1994, told the story of flying with Russian cosmonauts only a few years after the Cold War. The men talked of their families and of their aspirations for the world over dinner.
“I found that our relationship with the Russians in the space program has been the same ever since,” Bolden said. “We have weathered the storm through lots of contingencies.”
For his part, Marshburn, who is currently training in Houston for a future ISS mission, said he will continue to work as though the next trip will be with Russia. He’ll still study Russian, and he’ll work with Russian cosmonaut colleagues on site.
“We are well padded from the political goings on,” said Marshburn. “So, I just don’t think about it because who knows where it’s going to go.”
And as long as NASA astronauts climb into a Russian spacecraft, they’ll continue to add their tree to the growing grove around the Baikonur Cosmodrome as well.
A study of 12 astronauts show how hearts can temporarily change their shape during long periods of microgravity — a change that may lead to cardiac problems later on.
“The heart doesn’t work as hard in space, which can cause a loss of muscle mass,” James Thomas of NASA says in a news release. “That can have serious consequences after the return to Earth, so we’re looking into whether there are measures that can be taken to prevent or counteract that loss.”
Thomas and colleagues trained astronauts to take images of their hearts using ultrasound machines installed on the International Space Station. A dozen of them provided data on their heart shape before, during, and after spaceflight. These showed how their hearts became more spherical by a factor of 9.4 percent, which validate predictions from mathematical models.
The rounder shape appears to be temporary, fortunately, with the hearts returning to their normal, elongated shape shortly after the astronauts returned to Earth. But the transformation experienced in space suggests that the heart isn’t performing as efficiently — although doctors don’t really know about the actual long-term health effects of this kind of change.
Now that the models are validated, the researchers hope to use them to understand cardiovascular conditions on Earth. “The models predicted the changes we observed in the astronauts almost exactly,” Thomas says. “It gives us confidence that we can move ahead and start using these models for more clinically important applications on Earth, such as to predict what happens to the heart under different stresses.” The team is working on generalizing the models to analyze conditions like ischemic heart disease, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, and valvular heart disease.
Thomas adds that exercise regimens developed for astronauts in microgravity could also be used to help earthlings with severe physical limitations, such as people on extended bed rest or patients with heart failure.
Radiation levels at the Martian surface appear to be roughly similar to those experienced by astronauts in low-Earth orbit, NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity has found.
The rover’s initial radiation measurements — the first ever taken on the surface of another planet — may buoy the hopes of human explorers who may one day put boots on Mars, for they add more support to the notion that astronauts can indeed function on the Red Planet for limited stretches of time.
“Absolutely, astronauts can live in this environment,” Don Hassler, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., told reporters during a news conference today (Nov. 15).
Hassler is principal investigator of Curiosity’s Radiation Assessment Detector instrument, or RAD. RAD aims to characterize the Martian radiation environment, both to help scientists assess the planet’s past and current potential to host life and to aid future manned exploration of the Red Planet.
Since Curiosity landed on Mars in August, RAD has measured radiation levels broadly comparable to those experienced by crewmembers of the International Space Station, Hassler said. Radiation at the Martian surface is about half as high as the levels Curiosity experienced during its nine-month cruise through deep space, he added.
The findings demonstrate that Mars’ atmosphere, though just 1 percent as thick as that of Earth, does provide a significant amount of shielding from dangerous, fast-moving cosmic particles. (Mars lacks a magnetic field, which gives our planet another layer of protection.)
The $2.5 billion Curiosity rover is getting a bead on the nature of this shielding. RAD has observed that radiation levels rise and fall by 3 to 5 percent over the course of each day, coincident with the daily thickening and thinning of the Martian atmosphere, researchers said.
Hassler stressed that RAD’s findings are preliminary, as Curiosity is just three months into a planned two-year prime mission. He and his team have not yet put hard numbers on the Martian radiation levels, though they plan to do so soon.
“We’re working on that, and we’re hoping to release that at the AGU meeting in December,” Hassler said, referring to the American Geophysical Union’s huge conference in San Francisco, which runs from Dec. 3-7. “Basically, there’s calibrations and characterizations that we’re finalizing to get those numbers precise.”
The real issue for human exploration, he said, is determing how much of a radation dose any future astronauts would accumulate throughout an entire Mars mission — during the cruise to the Red Planet, the time on the surface and the journey home.
“Over time, we’re going to get those numbers,” Hassler said.
One key to understanding the big picture will be documenting the effects of big solar storms, which can blast huge clouds of charged particles into space. Curiosity flew through one such cloud on its way to Mars but has yet to experience one on the surface, Hassler said.
RAD is just one of Curiosity’s 10 different science instruments, which it’s using to determine if the Red Planet could ever have supported microbial life. During today’s press conference, researchers also detailed some initial findings about the Martian atmosphere, including interesting wind patterns and details about daily changes in atmospheric density.
“If we can find out more about the weather and climate on present-day Mars, then that really helps us to improve our understanding of Mars’ atmospheric processes,” said Claire Newman of Ashima Research in Pasadena, Calif., a collaborator for Curiosity’s Rover Environmental Monitoring Station instrument. “That gives us much more confidence when we try to predict things like what Mars may have looked like in the past.”
Looks like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are just as popular in outer space as down on planet Earth.
Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut who rocketed (I had to go there) to viral stardom with his videos describing life in space, has now begun a series in space cooking. His first foray into zero gravity food prep is a classic — PB&J.
Well, kind of. Turns out bread it too crummy (like, too many actual crumbs) for space, so astronauts sub in tortilla. Hadfield also trades honey for jelly, so he actually ends up with a PB&H taco.
And the video gets interesting when the tortilla floats away and Hadfield has to go bouncing through the International Space Station to retrieve it.
When astronauts return from space walks and remove their helmets, they are welcomed back with a peculiar smell. An odor that is distinct and weird: something, as astronauts have described it, like “seared steak.” And also: “hot metal.” And also: “welding fumes.”
Our space explorers are remarkably consistent in describing Space Scent in meaty-metallic terms. “Space definitely has a smell that’s different than anything else,” astronaut Tony Antonelli has said. As three-time spacewalker Thomas Jones notes has put it, space “carries a distinct odor of ozone, a faint acrid smell.”
Add to all those anecdotal assessments the recent discovery, in a vast dust cloud at the center of our galaxy, of ethyl formate — and the fact that the ester is, among other things, the chemical responsible for the flavor of raspberries. Add to that the fact that ethyl formate itself smells like rum. Put all that together, and one thing becomes clear: The final frontier sort of stinks.
But … how does it stink, exactly? It turns out that we, and more specifically our atmosphere, are the ones who give space its special spice. According to one researcher, the aroma astronauts inhale as they move their mass from space to station is the result of “high-energy vibrations in particles brought back inside which mix with the air.”
So NASA is now trying to reproduce that smell for training purposes — the better to help preemptively acclimate astronauts to the odors of the extra-atmospheric environment. And the better to help minimize the sensory surprises they’ll encounter once they’re there. The agency has hired the scent chemist Steve Pearce to recreate space stench, as much as possible, here on earth.
Pearce came to NASA’s attention after he recreated, for an art installation on “Impossible Smells,” the scents of the Mir space station. (He notes that this was a feat made more complicated by the fact that cosmonauts tend to bring vodka with them into space — which affects not only the scent of their breath, but also the odor of their perspiration.) The result of Pearce’s efforts? “Just imagine sweaty feet and stale body odor, mix that odor with nail polish remover and gasoline… then you get close!”
“Each time, when I repressed the airlock, opened the hatch and welcomed two tired workers inside, a peculiar odor tickled my olfactory senses,” Pettit recalled. “At first I couldn’t quite place it. It must have come from the air ducts that re-pressed the compartment. Then I noticed that this smell was on their suit, helmet, gloves, and tools. It was more pronounced on fabrics than on metal or plastic surfaces.”
“It is hard to describe this smell; it is definitely not the olfactory equivalent to describing the palette sensations of some new food as “tastes like chicken.” The best description I can come up with is metallic; a rather pleasant sweet metallic sensation. It reminded me of my college summers where I labored for many hours with an arc welding torch repairing heavy equipment for a small logging outfit. It reminded me of pleasant sweet smelling welding fumes. That is the smell of space.”
Who was the first woman to have her period in space? What is it like changing sanitary products while being weightless? And why doesnt menstrual flow just float up into the body when gravity isnt around?
These were some of the questions I had when I started researching female astronaut health. The human body goes through a lot of changes when in space. Not having gravity to constantly work against, it loses bone density and muscle mass. The cardiovascular system gets lazy and the bodys balance control mechanisms have to completely readapt themselves to find a new norm.
Therefore, I was surprised to learn that one system that doesnt change at all is the female menstrual cycle. Studies have shown that women can have periods as normally in space as they do on Earth. Whats more, menstrual blood flow isnt actually affected by the weightlessness we experience in space, so it doesnt float back in the body knows it needs to get rid of it.
The fact that women can get periods in space was once used as an argument that women shouldnt be astronauts. However, we now know that periods dont impair an astronauts ability. Nevertheless, it may be something that female astronauts simply dont want to deal with.
A personal choice
Luckily, there are ways to stop women from having periods these days. But research studies have shown that there are certain groups of women who identify with their periods, feeling it is natural to have a monthly cycle, while others would be happy to never have a period again. Experts havent reached a consensus on whether to routinely recommend complete menstrual suppression, but the majority do suggest there are no long-term side effects to not bleeding.
There are no rules or regulations surrounding what a female astronaut should do about her period it is a completely personal choice. Some female astronauts have felt menstrual suppression is not suitable for them and therefore have chosen to menstruate in space. However, when making the decision a female astronaut may want to consider some of the challenges of getting periods in space. These tend to be related to the practicalities of hygiene wash water is limited and changing sanitary products while floating in space would also be quite a task.
If a woman decides against having her periods in space as many of the long-duration fliers do their current best available option is to use the oral contraceptive pill. On Earth, the so called combined oestrogen-based contraceptive pill, which prevents ovulation, is taken for three weeks in a row, with a fourth pill-free week to allow for a periodic bleed. However, astronauts who do not want to menstruate can take these pills back-to-back and forgo that week of bleeding. For fit and healthy women, doing this is not linked to any harmful side effects.
But an issue is that, for a three-year mission (say, to Mars and back), youd need about 1,100 pills to keep periods away and the flight needs to cope with carrying and disposing of all the packaging, including the cost of launching any extra payload into space. The same problem applies to sanitary products.
We are, however, discovering a number of different options. My recent research suggests long-acting reversible contraceptive (LARC) agents, implants that are typically put under the skin or within the uterus to slowly release menstruation-supressing hormones, may be more convenient. After all, it may be difficult to remember to take a pill at a certain time each day when managing training schedules and multiple long-haul flights with the added difficulty of changing time zones.
But are they safe? My study didnt find any evidence that the huge acceleration forces on the body, during launch or landing, could actually damage these devices. But we still dont know exactly how the implant would fare under specialist diving or spacewalk clothing which lies close to the skin.
NASA astronaut Cady Coleman, Expedition 26 flight engineer. NASA
Despite the advances in space-based research, theres a lot we still dont know. One issue is what effect different contraceptives have on bone mineral density. A lack of minerals in our bones increases the risk of conditions such as osteoporosis and fractures. Astronauts lose bone at a much higher rate than on Earth, and there is some evidence that certain contraceptives, such as injections with synthetic progestogen, may make this worse. However, more research is needed for us to fully understand the risks.
Theres a lot more we dont know about female astronaut health. One is the impact on fertility as a result of spaceflight. A study from the 1990s suggested that spaceflight did not have a significant impact on female fertility. A womans fertility does, however, decrease with age. So if female astronauts are trying to have their first baby after the age of 41 years and struggling it is difficult to tease out whether spaceflight has had an impact, or just age.
Having babies in space is a far-fetched idea, as the radiation impact in space would be severely detrimental to the unborn child leaving this as a completely unethical area of research. Only once advances in radiation research have progressed to a point where we can safely protect humans from space radiation on long duration missions could we properly ask whether women can carry a pregnancy in space.
However, when it comes to the impact of suppressing menstruation in space, it is possible to do more research. This will be crucial if we want to send astronauts on increasingly long missions such as to Mars and beyond. Luckily, we are already making progress. Our systematic work means there is, for the first time, a go to guide for female astronauts looking to make the right choices for them.