“There is no limit to what we, as women, can accomplish”
When the former first lady of the United States said this, she must have really envisioned something great. And she wasn’t definitely mistaken. Women are not only achieving great things in academics and their careers but also in various other fields such as medicine, science, space exploration, sports and more.
Here’s proof. In the last week of September, 20 women had tucked themselves in a waterbed for five days as part of a dry immersion study to recreate some of the effects of spaceflight on the human body. The campaign kicked off on September 21 with the first two subjects at the Medes Space Clinic in Toulouse, France. While we are on this topic, October 11 is also International Day of the Girl Child, which is celebrated to empower girls and amplify their voice. What better way to empower women than sending an all-female crew to space? Sounds crazy cool, right?
Space travel might soon become much more commercial and long-lasting compared to what it was a few years ago and today. While we have already witnessed male astronauts venturing to the Moon and returning, the first female astronaut to the Moon will launch with Artemis. This particular study began on September 21 with two participants at the MEDES Space Clinic in Toulouse, France. The European Space Agency (ESA) launched the study, called VIVALDI, in order to address the gender gap in science data. It is only the second time a dry immersion study is being conducted with an all-female crew, and it is the first-ever for Europe. “There is almost no knowledge about the physiological and psychological effects on women in this research area. An all-female dry immersion study will add to previous male campaigns run in Europe and Russia,” said Angelique Van Ombergen, ESA’s discipline, leading for life sciences.
So what exactly is a ‘dry immersion study’? During this study, the female volunteers lay down in containers akin to bathtubs covered with waterproof fabric to keep them dry and also evenly suspended in water. According to the Institute of Space Medicine and Physiology, “The immersion begins when water covers the subject above the thorax, immobilised with legs and trunk covered with a cotton sheet. Only the arms and head remain free outside the tarp.”
As a result, the human body will experience ‘supportlessness’ – something very similar to what astronauts feel while floating on the International Space Station. The volunteers will be only coming out for brief “hygiene breaks” to shower and for bathroom breaks while remaining in a horizontal position to minimise fluid shifts in the body. “Showering and transfer to other experiments are done outside of the tank while lying on their backs and with their head tilted 6 degrees down to minimise fluid shifts,” the institute stated. The scientists conducting the study are set to collect blood and urine samples, while also making continuous measurements to see how the body is adapting.
This support or weightlessness can have a striking impact on the human body in a short span of time. According to the study, “Without gravity to load the spine, water and other molecules are able to move into the discs between vertebrae, meaning that astronauts tend to become taller in space – but also weaker as supporting muscles and ligaments are doing less work. The absence of gravity also leads to fluids shifting towards the head, which has been linked to hearing and vision problems.” Various other, older studies have found the immune system can “go quiet” in the sterile environment of a spaceship, which sometimes might also lead to a reactivation of old viruses. Such effects on the body are likely to vary significantly between men and women.
“Women seem less susceptible to vision impairment than men, related to headward fluid shifts, but women are more susceptible to fainting when they come back to Earth,” said Prof Alan Hargens, who researches the impact of microgravity on the human body at Surgery University of California San Diego. These kinds of studies are extremely useful to both astronauts and people on Earth as finding ways to stay healthy in orbit is a large part of human spaceflight research and could have a significant impact on people with similar conditions or disorders.
This recent study by ESA has received positive feedback and is being called an important event ahead of the larger participation of women in spaceflight operations. This could fill certain gaps in data that would help in designing better health and medical strategies for female astronauts in the near future.
Do you ever want to travel into space? Have you ever thought about how your body feels without gravity? Tell us in the comments below.
Wish to read more? Then check out The Learning Tree blog: How do 3D Glasses Work?
Writing has always been Shreesha’s passion, be it for imparting knowledge or expressing opinions. In her former role as a journalist, she contributed to enriching society with knowledge. Now, at BYJU’S, she has moved on to something more exciting – creating tailor-made content for students. When she is not writing, you would find her looking for new ways to engage her child.
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