News - November 30, 2017 - by Ray Hagar

By Ray Hagar
Nevada Newsmakers

If your space-exploration goal is to "boldly go where no one has gone before," you need to see where you are going.

That looms as a major problem for a future journey to Mars as research on the International Space Station shows prolonged time in space can cause temporary blindness -- and in some cases, permanent blindness -- the chief scientist for the International Space Station said on Nevada Newsmakers.

"One of the things we discovered in the last 10 years is that some astronauts, when they go into space, actually have vision loss," said Julie Robinson, the chief scientist of the ISS. "A few of those astronauts have permanent vision loss that isn't reversed when they turn to earth."

It is a problem that must be solved if man is to ever land on Mars, said Robinson, a graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno. The blindness steams from prolonged weightlessness of a zero-gravity environment over a period of time, she said.

"It is a disease process that we have never seen on earth," Robinson said. "It is completely new to science and we are really trying to understand it so we can someday send humans safely to Mars and have them able to carry out the mission successfully."

The issue may be a surprise to some and has not been well-publicized because of medical-privacy concerns of astronauts, she said.

"We generally don't report single individuals, so you would not hear it in that kind of media thing because we protect their medical privacy," Robinson said.

Yet it is an issue that scientists have been working to solve for years, Robinson said. The blindness potential of zero-gravity environments was not discovered early in manned space missions because astronauts' short trips did not trigger the condition, she said.

"It was about 5 years ago that we first reported the pattern that we've seen," she said. "I think it took a while to see that pattern. Humans have been flying in space for a long time now, but we missed the pattern, first because the humans were going for a short period of time and secondly, we thought, oh, they are just getting old.

At first, scientists through it was a minor issue, but not anymore.

"We just thought it was reversible," Robinson said. "We just didn't realize that it was a real problem until we started having enough experience on the space station, since it doesn't happen in everybody.

"We had a few crew members coming home with such significant vision loss that people realized that it wasn't normal," Robinson said. "And then we started looking into those, doing extra imaging, some spinal taps on astronauts and found out they had really high spinal pressures and we realized there was something going on here that really mattered."

The U.S. and Russia have been working together on the space station to find a solution, Robinson said.

"We've learned it has something to to with the way fluids shift in their heads when they don't have a gravity field pulling the fluid down into their feet all the time," she said. "And this experiment is one that we are doing collaboratively with our Russian colleagues.

"We do it in the Russian segment (of the space station) with U.S. ultrasound and with a Russian device ... which is essentially a pair of sucking pants that can draw the fluids back down into their legs for a short period of time. We use the U.S. ultrasound to watch their fluids moving through the body, through their veins as it happens and then we use special devices to measure their eyes as well to try and understand what is going on in this process."

Man is not yet ready to venture to Mars because of "space blindness" and other factors, Robinson said.

"In the next 30 years, it (mission to Mars) is absolutely realistic," Robinson said. "If someone handed me a rocket to Mars today, I would not be ready to be able to send the crew with it because we still would not have enough knowledge that we haven't gained from the space station and from other tests to be able to operate."

Crew health concerns, radiation exposure and radiation shielding are issues that must be solved before man ventures to Mars, she said.

"We also have to deal with our life-support systems and we're still struggling with those working as well as we want them," she said. "We are going to test a whole new generation of those to make sure that are Mars ready."