Anousheh Ansari pulls no punches when she describes her trip to the International Space Station in her latest blog entry. She hurled twice, and had to resort to injections to quell her motion sickness.
Now the space agencies tend to de-emphasize the unpleasant aspects of spaceflight, especially if their professional astronauts/cosmonauts toss their cookies up there — which they have. So, Ansari’s honesty is refreshing.
Supposedly, spacesickness temporarily incapacitates only a few space travelers, although everyone should feel a little funny in “zero-g.” Ansari experienced all three symptoms.
- Vertigo and nausea. The semicircular canals in our skulls contain a fluid which helps us maintain our balance. Sloshing that fluid around — in amusement park rides, during tumbling exercises, on boats in rough waters — makes some people dizzy and ill. In orbit, you also lose your sense of down, since there is nothing pulling your body in one direction, while your eyes are telling you where the floor and ceiling are. The visual input and semicircular-canal inputs duke it out in your brain to see which ones win. Meanwhile, you feel green around the gills. Ansari compounded that problem by eagerly leaping out of bed and turning a few somersaults. She says, “As soon as I stopped I realized that what I did was not a good idea! I felt my internal organs doing a cha-cha inside my belly…” Motion sickness medicine and time eventually correct the problems.
- Stuffy-head syndrome and headaches. Gravity pulls our fluids down toward our feet and away from our heads. In free fall, those fluids collect in the head, giving some spacefarers the equivalent of a major sinus headache. Ansari likened it to the feeling you get when you stand on your head too long. The body eventually adjusts to the new environment, and I suppose pain killers and diuretics speed the process along.
- Back pain. With no gravity exerting its pull, your spine and your body in general stretch. Ansari says she likes being taller, but does not like the accompanying lower back pain, as the muscles down there try to compensate for the new, taller Ansari. She doesn’t offer an earthly analogy, but it’s probably like the back pain you can get — or at least I get — if you stay in bed too long.
A trouper at heart, Ansari bounced back from her momentary discomforts to be wide awake and all smiles when the Soyuz docked with the ISS. Her excitement (and some handy medications) wiped away her temporary misery from nausea, back pain and headache. It’s nice to know what we might expect if the rest of us ever get a chance to experience zero-g. Ansari might be writing the first real travelogue from space.