Deep space missions could increase the chances of cardiovascular diseases, thereby increasing the chances of deaths in astronauts.
NASA’s Apollo program sent 9 manned missions and 24 astronauts above the low Earth orbit (LEO) during decades of 1960s and 1970s. Those missions also included Apollo 11, which was used to take Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon. However, it appears that such beyond Earth missions have their own problems.
In a study, researchers worked on the fate of Apollo astronauts and found that the chances of death from cardiovascular diseases is 4-5 times more than that found for astronauts of the same time, who only went in low Earth orbits, or never went to any orbital mission. Researchers found that the Earth’s magnetic field is protective to human body and moving beyond that protective field could result in long-lasting damage to the cardiovascular system, and deep space radiation is one of the most important reasons in that damage. Various radiations and radiation sources are present in the space such as galactic cosmic rays, radiation in the Van Allen belts, and solar particle events. Protons are among the most abundant type of radiation in space. All these start affecting the body, especially cardiovascular system of astronauts.
Although the sample size of the study is small, the results show that about 45% of the Apollo astronauts died from cardiovascular problems as compared to only 11% of low Earth orbit astronauts and 9% of non-flight astronauts. Researchers found that the rate of death from cardiovascular diseases can be compared to that of the general population, but it could be due to very fit and healthy body of astronauts and the presence of diseased conditions in general public.
“In summary, results from the present study reveal that Apollo lunar astronauts have a significantly higher mortality rate due to CVD (cardiovascular disease) than either the cohort of astronauts who never flew an orbital space mission or astronauts who never flew beyond LEO (low Earth orbit),” Researchers noted in the study.
This is the first study to look at the long-term health consequences of people moving out into deep space. It has important implications for future space missions as many space agencies with NASA are planning to move to the moon and beyond the moon to the Mars by the decade 2030.
Delp, M., Charvat, J., Limoli, C., Globus, R., & Ghosh, P. (2016). Apollo Lunar Astronauts Show Higher Cardiovascular Disease Mortality: Possible Deep Space Radiation Effects on the Vascular Endothelium Scientific Reports, 6 DOI: 10.1038/srep29901