Will Space Make You Sick?

June 2016

Author Marianne Dyson’s Science Snacks Newsletter

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My experience with space sickness is documented in Science Fiction versus the Real Thing: What I learned on NASA’s “Vomit Comet,” available from Amazon for $1.79.

Will Space Make You Sick?

Astronauts don’t like to talk about it. Space tourist companies downplay it if they mention it at all. But about half of all people who go into space throw up. Some remain nauseous for days. Senator Jake Garn famously was space sick during his entire space shuttle flight in 1985.

Why do even fighter pilots get space sick? The answer is in the official name: Space Adaptation Syndrome.

Though I haven’t (yet) been into space, I have been space sick compliments of NASA’s aircraft, the “Vomit Comet.” I can assure you it is aptly named!

In 1999, students from the University of Illinois asked me to write about their participation in a NASA program (which is no longer funded) for Ad Astra, the magazine of the National Space Society. I happily agreed, got my flight physical, attended classes, and then flew 42 parabolas with them.

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Caption: NASA’s “Vomit Comet” is like a roller coaster in the air, providing up to 25 seconds of freefall or acceleration equal to lunar or Martian gravity during each parabola.

When you go into freefall (see November 2015 Science Snacks for why I don’t say “zero g”), it’s like pushing on a door that suddenly opens. Blood and water go flying toward the head. Eyelids get puffy and noses get stuffy. The fluid in your inner ears, that tells your brain which way is down, floats. Yet your eyes still see the floor as down. This mismatch causes motion sickness in some people.

Also, the heart pumps blood “uphill” to the brain. Muscles in the blood vessels prevent the blood from falling back down too fast. When a person jumps off a high dive, or falls inside a spacecraft, the blood returning from the brain floats instead of falling. So like a bathtub with a small drain, blood accumulates in the head, putting pressure on the brain.

The brain quickly tries to reduce pressure by getting rid of water. Thus your body temperature rises and you break out in a sweat. You need to pee. And you might throw up. I sure did!

To feel the effects, stand up and bend over at the waist. Look at your face in a mirror. It will turn red, and your eyes will get squinty (but some wrinkles will disappear!). Your nose will feel stuffy (which is why astronauts sound like they have a cold and prefer spicy foods in space). You may start sweating (bend over to warm up if you’re ever chilly). After a few minutes, straighten up. As the blood rushes back down, you’ll feel lightheaded. This is how it feels to return from space (and why you might faint after landing).

Will you get space sick? Probably. But the good news is that repeat fliers report shorter adaptations. The brain “remembers” to ignore the ears. And most astronauts feel fine by the second day. This is why I’m not anxious to go on a suborbital flight, but I’d consider a two-week vacation in space, preferably including a swing around the Moon! And I’m not sorry I flew on the “Vomit Comet.” The sickness didn’t keep me from having fun testing my telekinetic “Jedi” powers on a floating Yoda! (Read the eBook to learn more.)

So this summer, if you want to prepare for your future flight into space, head for the high dive, the roller coasters, and maybe do some sky diving.

Writing about Space

Looking for some space-related nonfiction or science fiction to read this summer? Check out the hundreds of recommended books on National Space Society’s Reading Space. I’m happy to say that Trajectories, an anthology containing a new Mars story of mine, is included on the list. I hope you’ll check it out!

Speaking about Space

Look for me at the following events. Watch my website Contact page for updates & Twitter for photos.

Saturday, June 18, panels 1-2 pm (Business 101 for Writers) and 4-5 pm (Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic Literature). Comicpalooza, GRB Convention Center, Houston.

Saturday, June 25, Mars talk & teacher workshops, Center for Earth and Space Science Education, Tyler Junior College.

August 17-21, MidAmeriCon II, the 74th Science Fiction Worldcon, Kansas City, MO.

Author: Marianne

Marianne Dyson was one of NASA's first female flight controllers, the subject of her Space Shuttle memoir, A Passion for Space. She's a speaker on space topics for adults and children, a technical editor, and science fiction writer. She is best known for her award-winning children’s books about space, including the NSTA 2016 Outstanding Trade Book Welcome to Mars which she coauthored with Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin for National Geographic.

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