Blinded By Space - How Space Travel Affects the Vision of Astronauts
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Oct 20, 2011

Blinded By Space - How Space Travel Affects the Vision of Astronauts

Pacific Ocean From Space Ever since the 1950s, the USA has been exploring space, mankind’s final frontier. Astronauts have boldly gone where no person has gone before in pursuit of scientific enlightenment and to satisfy the overwhelming natural desire to discover what’s out there. The 1960s saw a giant leap forward in space travel with pioneering lunar orbits and history-making moon landings. Since this time, NASA, the North American Space Agency has had its sights firmly set on sending its astronauts to Mars, Earth’s closest planetary neighbour. Until recently, the organisation had seemed a long way from achieving this goal. Investment in space travel slowed following the Cold War and the number of journeys being made into space decreased.

The termination of the Cold War may have curtailed the American led space-race, but it also paved the way for a new era of international cooperation in the area of space travel. Former enemies joined forces and international space stations were created, giving scientists on both sides of the former Iron Curtain a chance to study the effects of long term exposure to the conditions of space. A number of negative consequences caused by space travel had already been uncovered. These included bone demineralization and exposure to radiation. However, it was only following the creation of the international space stations that NASA identified that space travel could have a seriously detrimental impact on vision as well.

For a very long time, the space agency had been in receipt of anecdotal evidence suggesting that prolonged exposure to the conditions of space could have a detrimental impact on vision. Nonetheless, it wasn’t until 2005 that they began investigating the problem fully, when astronauts who had been staffing space stations returned home suffering from unexplained defects of vision. It is thought that the condition, which is similar to a condition suffered by individuals with high intracranial pressure (known as papilledema), might be caused by an increase in spinal-fluid pressure around the base of the skull.  It causes the afflicted astronaut to suffer blurred vision. Whilst in most instances vision will return to normal once the astronaut returns to Earth, there is at least one known case of an astronaut’s vision becoming permanently damaged.

The condition has yet to be explained conclusively. NASA appears to be treating it incredibly seriously. They make no secrets of a desire to achieve manned-space flight to Mars, but such a wish is unlikely to become a reality unless the space agency can cure the mystery condition. Experts agree that the risks to sight posed by what is estimated to be a three-year trip (there and back) are very high indeed. There is even a possibility that the astronauts involved would go blind. Asides from the human tragedy this would entail, such a failure of vision would also pose a very significant threat to the success of the overall mission. Thus, explaining, treating and preventing this mysterious sight condition is absolutely paramount to the progress of space travel.

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