We know chest-bursting xenomorphs don’t exist, but in space, can anyone hear you scream if you become the victim of some other medical emergency?
Astronauts are automatically at risk of blood clots and broken bones from extended flights in an anti-gravity environment. That doesn’t count the universe of other possibilities that might be lurking aboard a spaceship, including grossly mutating microbes. Risk of illness, injury and even death skyrockets when that ship breaks through Earth’s atmosphere. Preventative measures and plans of action need to be in place for when the unthinkable happens. Even in Alien, the crew makes a desperate effort to treat Kane for a case of parasitic space spawn, though you know how that goes.
“The exposure to the space environment itself disturbs most physiological systems and can precipitate the onset of space-specific illnesses, such as cardiovascular deconditioning, acute radiation syndrome, hypobaric decompression sickness and osteoporotic fractures,” said intensive care and anesthesia consultant Matthieu Komorowski, who has previously worked with astronauts in isolated environments, such as the Mars Desert Research Station, which simulates conditions on the Red Planet.
Microgravity doesn’t just warp the DNA of potentially lethal pathogens. It also causes bones to weaken over time, which makes them more susceptible to osteoporotic fractures. It is also far from the only problem faced by astronauts looking to make long-term missions that could eventually include Mars. Being used to a pressurized environment makes them highly susceptible to decompression sickness, when nitrogen bubbles forming in the tissues from a sudden reduction in air pressure cause cramps, numbness and possible paralysis in muscles and joints (not to mention nausea). Long missions mean increased risk of cardiac arrest. Space radiation exposure could even lead to cancer.
Because there isn’t exactly a 911 beyond Earth, or the Enterprise’s extensive sickbay, preventative measures should include 3-D printing of medical equipment and making sure crew members have the same blood type in case there is the need for an emergency transfusion. Astronauts also need to learn procedures normally reserved for doctors and paramedics. Training an entire crew in the same skills would increase the chance of survival. Telemedicine is also an option on missions closer to our planet, though the time lag between here and Mars is minutes long and could mean doom in a highly critical situation.
Not that all procedures work in space as they would on Earth. Your body weight becomes useless for performing CPR in almost-zero gravity. Alternate techniques have to be considered, such as performing compressions with your legs wrapped around the patient to keep them from floating away. Sometimes the only solution in a case that would involve using up massive amounts of irreplaceable medical supplies may be no solution at all.
“During future space exploration missions, the crew must prepare for non-survivable illnesses or injuries that will exceed their limited treatment capability,” said Komorowski.
At least the intensive medical monitoring astronauts are subjected to before takeoff means anything fatal is highly unlikely, but it might make future space tourists rethink that post-retirement vacation to Mars.