27 November 2005
- Vehicles (Bad)
Space Sickness
What goes down doesn't have to come up
by G B Leatherwood
by G.B. Leatherwood.

“Oh, no! Grab the bag!”

You paid $10 grand or more, took vacation time, got suited up, and were slammed into your seat by the acceleration of liftoff. Now you’re where you’ve always dreamed of being.

But wait! You’re…to put it mildly…about to lose your breakfast! What a way to start the greatest adventure of your life!

Space sickness. And you’re not unique.

Nearly everyone who has ever traveled in space, whether seasoned astronauts or “tourists” like Dennis Tito, Mark Shuttleworth, and Greg Olsen, has experienced this persistent nausea, which is not life threatening and only lasts a few days. However, for some, this uncomfortable phenomenon can put a damper on any exciting journey. Why is this?

Sensors in your middle ear tell us what is up, down, sideways, rotating, or missing something—like Earth’s gravity. Motion sickness is common in surface travel (“carsickness”), on water (“seasickness”), and while flying (“airsickness”), and most of us who travel anywhere have experienced it. All airliners have a special bag in each seat pocket, and for good reason. Children are especially susceptible to travel sickness, probably because their bodies are sensitive to sudden changes in direction, and some never outgrow the problem.

And now we’re going into space.


In his article “Nauseating News About Spacesickness,” Space.com Senior Science Writer Leonard David quotes Charles Oman, Director of the Man Vehicle Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics in Cambridge, MS: “We still don’t understand the underlying physiology. It’s a tough problem, a scaled-down version of the problem we face with NASA astronauts.” (SPACE.com, 21/11/2005)

Mr. Oman goes on: “It’s appropriate for suborbital or orbital tourists to spend days or weeks in training, depending on the complexity of what they are doing. Like NASA astronauts, educating the public space traveler to space sickness issues is basic.”

Much has been learned about the problems of space sickness, some of it difficult because of the astronaut’s determination to show only “the right stuff” and not confess problems for fear of being denied future assignments. Instead of saying they were sick from vertigo, they had the “flu,” or some such other transient malady. However, they actually suffered from motion sickness. Mr. Oman, an expert in the field, said “We learned early in the shuttle program that it’s not just being in weightlessness and making head movements. It was getting up and moving around that was really a significant stimulus.”


Some of the best drugs available for motion sickness are quite common. If you know you are sensitive to this, you have probably taken scopolamine in some form or another before and during your trip. However, some of these drugs carry with them side effects like sedation or blurred vision. Wouldn’t it be awful to spend major money for your once-in-a-lifetime trip to space only to spend it either asleep or with a distorted look out the window? You bet!

But there is hope. Although no susceptibility studies have been done, some space motion sickness studies are funded and underway, according to Lauren Hammit, a spokesperson for the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) in Houston, Texas. One such promising innovation is intranasal scopolamine, being tested by Laskhmi Putcha at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Of special interest is that, if approved by the US Food and Drug Administration as a marketed drug, it could be of benefit to both civilians and military personnel traveling by sea or stationed at sea.


In addition to trips to the International Space Station ( ISS) brokered by Space Adventures, that organized the orbital travels of Tito, Shuttleworth, and Olsen, the Zero Gravity Corporation (ZERO-G), based in Dania Beach, Florida, is making progress in dealing with the microgravity malady. Peter Diamandis, president and CEO of ZERO-G, says that about 25 per cent of their passengers opt for medication, plus a variety of ways to deal with it including pre-flight preparation, changing the flight profile (similar to the ups and downs of a roller coaster ride), and the body position of the flyers during the 1.8 g pullout.

According to those most interested in developing the business of space tourism, ranging from Mr. Anderson and Mr. Diamandis to Burt Rutan, currently developing suborbital spacecraft evolving from the successful Ansari X-Prize winner SpaceShipOne, the potential adverse effects of space sickness are being studied, remedies and preventions developed, and should not discourage anyone from signing up. Preparation, simple medications, and awareness of the possible effects should make this whole situation manageable for nearly everyone.

And for the few who still experience the stomach-wrenching effects of space sickness? Well, at least you can say you’ve been there!
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G B Leatherwood 27 November 2005
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