Getting Sick in Space: Virus Edition

What happens if an astronaut gets sick while in space?

Astronauts on the ISS wear face coverings to protect themselves from potentially loose particles and irritants from a supply craft. Img Source: https://bit.ly/3jz7sQ8

You’ve worked your whole life to be an astronaut. Your application was accepted. You spent two years in rigorous training and have finally been selected to launch to space. You arrive at the space station and everything is going great — until you start to not feel well and your head is throbbing.

Space seems like the perfect escape from our world. But what happens when the nuisances of Earth follow us up?

Now I’m not talking about Space Motion Sickness (read more in Space Exploration: Side Effects May Include…) or just getting used to microgravity in general. I’m talking about what happens when an astronaut brings the common cold with them or something much worse?

Viruses: A Crash Course

Viruses have been around longer than humans. About 1.5 billion years ago, the first 66 virus-specific proteins appeared. These proteins allowed the virus to thrive by attacking host cells. Thus began the billion year battle between viruses and animals.

Image of viruses from Maryna Olyak. Img Source: https://bit.ly/33sKl48

Viruses are microscopic parasites that rely on invading an organism — like a human or a pig — to survive. The viruses gain access to host cells through open wounds or respiratory passages. Once inside the body, the virus’s outer coat, which is made of specific proteins designed to latch onto host cells, attacks and attaches itself to the cell. Think of it like a key fitting into a lock. The virus is then able to insert its genetic material, DNA or RNA, into the host cell and replicate. The virus is able to change the host cell’s machinery to produce viral proteins and change the conditions inside the body so it can spread faster. The infiltrated host cells are no longer able to fend for themselves and their own protein synthesis is halted.

A basic example of how a virus infects a cell.

This is when the body employs T-cells to basically scan for infections. This is called an immune response. If a T-cell detects an infected cell, it releases cytotoxic factors to kill the cell. Another immune response is when the body releases natural killer cells, which are specialized in releasing toxins to destroy the infected cell.

Antibodies are a big part of the body’s immune response and are important to recovering from harsh viruses and preventing your body from letting the virus take over. The antibodies find invading pathogens and stick to them. By sticking to the virus, the antibodies neutralize it. The antibodies learn to recognize the bad pathogens and can fight them off before the viruses have a chance to do any damage. It’s like learning from your mistakes. If you accidentally burn yourself on the stove, you’ll probably wear mitts next time.

Viruses in Space

In space, the body and its immune system act very differently then they do on Earth. Viruses also act differently in the new environment. From the change in gravity to the ecosystem of the capsule, there’s bound to be difficulties when an astronaut gets sick.

Astronauts prepare for the Expedition 64 to the ISS in October 2020. Img Source: NASA

The second an astronaut starts having contagious symptoms while in space, the crew has to take immediate measures to prevent the spread of the sickness. In a small, closed environment, the virus can easily jump from host to host. The sick astronaut also has to be diagnosed quickly in order to be properly treated.

If an astronaut has something as mild as a common cold, their symptoms are still 10x. You know that awful sinus-pressure pain in your forehead and under your eyes when you’re all stuffed up? Imagine in space when all the fluids in your body are pushing up to your head. Sinuses can’t drain in zero gravity so the stuffy feeling is even worse.

Luckily, an astronaut hasn’t caught more serious viruses like the different variations of coronavirus or ebola while in space. But what would happen if an astronaut brought COVID-19 with them? Like on Earth, it would depend on the severity of the case. There’s limited medical supplies, no hospitals, and — if there’s no doctor on board — no in-person access to a medical consultation. And on a mission to Mars, telemedicine isn’t efficient due to the time delay.

Here’s where things can get tricky. An astronaut can launch to space perfectly healthy but during the mission start to experience symptoms of a virus they’ve already had. During multiple space shuttle and space station missions, astronauts experienced latent herpes reactivations. This meant that the herpes virus already existed inside them but hadn’t been activated and the pressures of space activated it. Most of them were asymptomatic, but the infectious viral shedding was still occurring.

This happens because stress hormone levels are higher than normal. There is a rise in the secretion of adrenaline and cortisol, which can suppress the immune system. The body then becomes more susceptible to viruses and the immune cells are weaker and less effective. This effect can even last for up to 60 days once the astronauts are back on Earth.

On October 11, 1968, the Apollo 7 mission launched with three astronauts aboard. Only fifteen hours later, Astronaut Wally Schirra came down with a severe cold. Soon, all three crew members were sick. Their symptoms were common but were worsened since the mucus couldn’t drain.

The Apollo VII crew poses for a photo before launch. Img Source: NASA

This was also the grumpiest group of astronauts to come back down to Earth because of their illnesses. Among other grievances while in space, the astronauts didn’t want to wear their helmets during re-entry and landing. They were afraid of what the massive change in pressure would do to their sinuses. They’d been relieving pressure by pinching their noses and blowing. The helmets didn’t allow for them to do that so the astronauts simply decided not to wear their helmets against Mission Control’s instructions. Ground was not happy.

Multiple launches have happened during the COVID-19 pandemic so far and even more are scheduled for later this year. The protocols in place to protect the astronauts aren’t that different from what we do when going to the grocery store or doctor’s office.

Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley wave goodbye to their families while practicing social distancing before launching in May 2020. Img Source: https://abcn.ws/3laZtcy

First, they have to quarantine for two weeks. But that isn’t new to astronauts. They have been quarantining before missions for years to help prevent any illnesses from hitching a ride to space. Then, anyone working around the astronauts has to wear face coverings and gloves. Surfaces are disinfected and Plexi-glas is installed at work areas. Temperatures are taken. Social distancing is enforced. The astronauts are tested at least twice for coronavirus before they launch. It sounds pretty routine to all of us right now. On the day of the launch, the size of the crowd coming to watch is reduced. Astronauts have to wave goodbye to their families six feet away.

There’s another type of “viruses in space” that are a little more concerning because they are actually came from space. There are no actual confirmed viruses from space, but it is highly possible.

Viruses on their own would barely be able to survive in the freezing vacuum of space without a host. But a virus that is in inside an object is a much different story. Asteroids are the best example of this. Even when they are tumbling through the atmosphere and reaching thousands of degrees, microorganisms deep inside could still survive.

One of the most famous space missions is Apollo 11, which carried Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin to the moon. The mission was a success and the crew got many lunar samples to bring back for research. But when the crew returned, NASA made them quarantine for three whole weeks.

Astronaut Neil Armstrong explores the moon during the Apollo XI mission. Img Source: NASA

Why did they do this? The 60’s were the height in vaccines and immunizations. There was a growing concern among NASA scientists about moon germs. The population was winning a war against infectious diseases and the prospect of the Apollo astronauts contributing if anything went wrong. They didn’t want the astronauts bringing back novel pathogens when the population didn’t have any immunity built against it or a vaccination for it. So the astronauts and their moon samples were quarantined until the scientists were sure that anything that could have possibly been along for the ride was gone.

As we know with viruses, not all medicines and not all vaccines work effectively enough to eradicate the virus. But with recent advancements in nanotechnology, immune defenses could be boosted and the gap between a normal immune system and an astronaut’s stressed out one could be closed.

Recent research from Potsdamn Institute of Biochemistry and Biology and the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science have found that by using rigid gold and silver nanoparticles, they could permanently and effectively bind and shield viruses to the point where they can’t be infectious. These advancements are important for not only the eradication of viruses, but also the future of space travel.

When considering commercial space travel and missions to Mars, it goes way beyond just viruses. What happens if a crew member has a heart attack? Or needs emergency surgery? Or what would happen if a passenger did bring influenza with them? Do microorganisms exist on Mars that would be harmful if humans were to come in contact with them?

So how does the affect life on Earth? Astronauts are carefully selected among the healthiest and fittest people on the planet. But not everybody is. We can’t be an interplanetary species if there’s no way for diabetics or people with weak immune systems to go to space.

And as Doug Bonderud said in Can Viruses Survive Space?, “Space is no virus vacation.”

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Welcome! My name is Allison. I’m a 17 year old high school student with a passion for biotech and space science!