The era of space tourism is here: Health implications of spaceflight

By Anastasia Climan, RDN, CD-N | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published May 7, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • NASA is collaborating with private companies to advance commercial spaceflight, but many of us are uninformed when it comes to the potential health impacts of space travel.

  • The physical and mental health hazards associated with space travel may put "space tourists" at risk during and after missions.

  • Private space travelers should be thoroughly screened and informed of how going to space affects the brain.

Space tourism is a futuristic trend that brings everyday thrill-seekers on cosmic trips around the universe.

But after generations of adapting to life on Earth, the human body and brain aren’t entirely suited to withstand the stressors of space. Here’s what physicians need to know about exploring this new frontier and the implications of space travel for brain health.

The commercial spaceflight revolution

Commercial space flight was once relegated to the realm of science fiction. However, it’s becoming more accessible. As private companies push the boundaries of space exploration, the future of medicine may very well extend beyond the confines of Earth.

NASA has stated that “expanding the commercial human spaceflight market” is an important goal.[] NASA is transitioning low-Earth orbit to private companies that already transport crew and cargo to NASA’s International Space Station in outer space. NASA has said that private competition can help fuel greater innovation, and with lower barriers to entry, the private spaceflight industry is building momentum.[]

NASA’s commercial crew program brings together government and private industry to transport humans from the United States to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station.

Collaborating with these private companies helps free up NASA’s resources to focus on deep-space missions, such as preparing for human travel to Mars. 

So far, just over 600 people have been to space, only about 30 of whom were “private astronauts.”[] Their widely publicized flights help spark awareness and interest in space travel among private citizens. The ability of non-billionaires to plan trips to space may not be as far-fetched in the near future.

Space travel’s effects on the body

These advancements are exciting, but traveling to space is risky for obvious reasons. It’s also physically taxing for humans, write the authors of a review on the effects of long-term space missions.[]

Time in space has been associated with impaired cardiovascular fitness, reduced muscle mass and strength, weaker bones, and a higher risk of cancers, liver disease, and autoimmune disorders.

UK neurologists writing on the neurological effects of space flight note that the microgravity environment of space quickly leads to vestibular and ocular structural dysfunction, along with motion sickness, fatigue, and anorexia.[] Studies show these effects may normalize after 30 days in space, but longer trips require a greater readjustment period upon return to Earth. Space also interferes with the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle.

Professional astronauts were traditionally required to meet strict physical standards to account for the stressors of space. However, as commercial spaceflight becomes more accessible, there’s a good chance that space tourists may be more vulnerable to neurological effects during and after spaceflight. 

Responsible space tourism must include medical pre-screening and informed consent for health hazards. The review authors give the example of intracranial pressure changes occurring during space flight, which increase the risk of intracerebral hemorrhage. A pre-flight cerebral vascular angiography could help identify those at risk.

Brain diseases and mental health in space

Taking extended or multiple trips to space can leave travelers vulnerable to lasting effects, particularly from radiation exposure. According to the UK neurologists, studies suggest that the more time someone spends in space, the higher their risk of brain cancer, premature aging, neurodegeneration, and alterations in white matter.

White matter hyperintensities resulting from increased ventricular volume of cerebrospinal fluid during spaceflight have been linked to cognitive impairment and dementia on Earth.

The psychological aspects of extended missions in space are also not to be underestimated. For example, trips to Mars may involve 3 years of isolation. The isolated and confined environment (ICE) is a known stressor of space travel. 

As the UK authors explain, the psychological implications of space missions need to be considered. “Serious psychiatric complications such as bipolar disease and schizophrenia are rarer in spaceflight than in other extreme environments due to intense pre-flight screening but as space tourism becomes more common so might these psychiatric illnesses in space. Cultural and interpersonal stressors may also impact astronauts’ mental health during spaceflight. As space crafts and the International Space Station are staffed by individuals from different countries and backgrounds, conflicts between staff will worsen mental health and impair mission performance.”

Loosening the rigors of pre-screening for space travelers carries clear risks. Even when careful measures are in place, some neurological damage may be unavoidable.

What this means for you

So far, just a small number of private citizens have managed to make their way into space. However, that number will continue to grow, bringing interesting implications for mental and physical health. Knowing the effects and risks that travel to space puts on the body and brain can help ensure appropriate candidate selection for space tourism and protect the public against unintended complications.

Read Next: 3 gas station drugs that could kill you
Share with emailShare to FacebookShare to LinkedInShare to Twitter