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Astronauts are surprisingly good at 'flying' in space

A recent study by York University reveals that astronauts are surprisingly good at “flying,” even without the familiar pull of Earth’s gravity. They accurately judge how far they travel and can react quickly in emergencies.

This study, a collaboration with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and NASA, opens new realms of understanding in space safety and human balance, potentially shedding light on aging processes on Earth.

Astronauts challenge of flying without gravity

Our sense of balance and movement has evolved on Earth, where gravity is always present. This force plays a crucial role in how we understand which way is up and how to keep from falling over.

Without gravity, our inner ear system, which usually helps us sense balance and orientation, can get confused. This begs the question: how do astronauts function in the microgravity environment of the ISS, where Earth’s gravity is mostly canceled out?

Professor Laurence Harris, a vision and motion perception expert from York University, has been studying this very phenomenon.

“We’ve had a steady presence for close to a quarter-century in space, and with space efforts only increasing as we plan to go back to the moon and beyond, answering health-and-safety questions only becomes more important,” said Professor Harris.

“Based on our findings it seems as though humans are surprisingly able to compensate adequately for the lack of an Earth-normal environment using vision.” Understanding how humans adapt to space is critical for long-term missions to the moon and beyond.

Astronauts put to the test

Professor Harris and his team worked with a dozen astronauts – six men and six women – on board the ISS. Their research compared astronauts’ sense of motion and distance before, during, and after their long-duration missions.

The study wasn’t without its challenges. Space missions are packed with tasks, and sometimes the ISS has to perform emergency maneuvers to avoid small objects hurtling through space.

Astronauts superpower of space adaptation

So, did the astronauts struggle in space? Surprisingly, not much. The researchers found that the astronauts’ ability to accurately judge how far they traveled in space remained largely intact.

“It has been repeatedly shown that the perception of gravity influences perceptual skill,” Harris explained. “The most profound way of looking at the influence of gravity is to take it away, which is why we took our research into space.”

What does this adaptability reveal? Scientists think humans can compensate remarkably well for the lack of gravity by relying primarily on their vision. This challenges previous assumptions about how important our inner ear balance system is for accurate movement.

So, how exactly do astronauts fly?

Astronauts “fly” in space through a combination of microgravity conditions and their own movements

Microgravity environment

In space, especially in orbit around Earth like on the International Space Station (ISS), astronauts experience microgravity. This doesn’t mean there’s no gravity at all, but the gravitational pull is much weaker than on Earth’s surface. This state is often described as weightlessness.

Movement in microgravity

In this environment, astronauts don’t walk as they do on Earth. Instead, they push off surfaces to move. A gentle push from a wall, ceiling, or other surface sends them floating across the cabin. They use their hands and feet to grab onto handrails or other fixtures to steer themselves or to stop.

Controlled motions

Because of the lack of resistance, movements in microgravity must be more deliberate. Sudden or forceful movements can send an astronaut spinning or bumping into objects or walls. Learning to fly or move efficiently in space involves mastering the art of gentle, controlled pushes and grabs.

Adapting to microgravity

New astronauts spend a significant amount of time adjusting to this way of moving. They learn how to control their speed and direction and how to perform tasks while floating. This adaptation is crucial for their safety and effectiveness aboard spacecraft.

In essence, astronauts fly in space by leveraging the unique conditions of microgravity, using surfaces to propel and direct themselves, and mastering the art of movement without the familiar pull of Earth’s gravity.

Implications: From space to aging

The study has implications far beyond space travel. The ISS is a potentially hazardous environment, and the research shows that astronauts maintain the ability to move quickly and precisely in emergencies.

“On a number of occasions during our experiment, the ISS had to perform evasive maneuvers,” recalls Harris. “Astronauts need to be able to go to safe places or escape hatches on the ISS quickly and efficiently in an emergency. So, it was very reassuring to find that they were actually able to do this quite precisely.”

Perhaps even more intriguing, the research offers insights into how aging affects our perception and movement here on Earth. As we get older, our sense of balance often declines, leading to a greater risk of falls.

The study suggests that those problems may not solely stem from the inner ear system’s deterioration, as previously thought. Maybe, as we age, the connection between how far we perceive we’ve moved and how our bodies actually react to maintain balance weakens – an area worth investigating further.

The future of astronauts flying in space and beyond

The York University study is just the beginning. Professor Harris and his team plan to investigate other space-related changes in perception. This work paves the way for safer, more successful space exploration on future missions to the Moon and Mars.

It also sheds light on health concerns here on Earth, helping us understand the mysteries of aging and how to live better, longer lives. Isn’t it amazing how reaching for the stars can improve life right here on the ground?

The study is published in the journal NPJ Microgravity.


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