On Earth, the process of developing a health condition and recovering from it has a normal procedure: you probably go to the doctor, stay at home, drink a lot of fluids and rest until you’re completely well. However, when in space, things tend to get a little tricky.
For the last 20 years, the International Space Station (ISS) has continually housed humans in low-Earth orbit. But with the novel coronavirus outbreak spreading through the globe, it must surely affect the way things work in space, as well as the astronauts preparing to fly to the ISS in the following weeks.
The Crew is Under Quarantine Before Take-Off
For now, the plan is still ongoing, as it would normally do. NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and his crewmates are getting ready for their forthcoming launch to the orbiting lab that will take place on April 9th from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
“We are currently evaluating the potential for testing crew members Chris Cassidy, Anatoly Ivanishin, and Ivan Vagner for coronavirus before launch,” NASA spokesperson Shaneequa Vereen stated.
Astronauts are quarantined for two weeks before the launch, along with a backup crew member, in order to make sure they aren’t sick or carrying a virus when they get to the space station. Before taking off to space, the astronauts will undergo medical emergency training and are in a continual state of communication with a team of doctors on Earth who verify the astronauts’ health. Moreover, the ISS also has a pharmacy on board, according to Vareen.
“Astronauts are very healthy people. The folks who go into space now are still quite a select group of people, and we bless them with superb health, so we haven’t seen any serious illnesses in space just yet,” former NASA astronaut Winston Scott said.
Because many people do not show any symptoms, or they can be very mild, astronauts, too, could have been infected with COVID-19 before leaving Earth’s atmosphere without realizing it, simply because their immune system is always in top shape.
“To prevent any illness before an astronaut goes into quarantine, NASA is closely adhering to the CDC’s recommendations on infection control for the coronavirus,” Vereen said. “This includes cleaning of surfaces, social distancing, emphasizing hand hygiene, encouraging NASA team members who are sick to stay home, and limiting contact with crew members.”
Viruses Can Reactivate in Astronauts
However, it is possible that an astronaut can fall ill in space. Fred Haise became sick during the inauspicious Apollo 13 mission, and a non-infectious disease can develop with little or no warning signs.
Scott explained: “Even if the person caught it and spread it to everybody else, the best place they can be is in orbit because they’re already quarantined. They’re already in their own isolation lab, and it’s only six of them. So chances are, it’ll run its course, they’ll get over it, and the virus will die. They won’t spread it to anybody else because, by the time they came home, it’s all over and done.”
Still, if that weren’t the case and one of the members of the crew developed a more severe form of the virus, an emergency crew landing would take place. Scientific research has shown pathogens such as herpes and chickenpox can reactivate on long-term space missions due to stress.
Other research also shows astronauts’ muscle, and bone mass reduces because of the lack of gravity on board of the orbiting lab. With the current pandemic, it is important that the returning astronauts as well, are carefully cared for.
“When they come back home with a weakened state, you bring them home in a very controlled environment, and you keep them in a controlled environment to be sure that they are not exposed to something once they get back,” Scott said.