Becoming an astronaut requires perfect 20/20 vision, but unfortunately, the effects of space can cause astronauts to return to Earth impaired vision. Now researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center have developed a sleeping bag that could prevent or reduce these problems by effectively sucking fluid from astronauts ’heads.
More than half of NASA astronauts who have gone to the International Space Station (ISS) for more than six months have developed vision problems to varying degrees. In one case, astronaut John Philips returned from a six-month stay on the ISS in 2005 with reduced vision from 20/20 to 20/100 because BBC reported.
For years of travel to Mars, for example, this could become a problem. “It would be a disaster for astronauts to have such severe damage that they can’t see what they’re doing and that would jeopardize the mission,” lead researcher Dr. Benjamin Levine told BBC.
Fluids usually accumulate in your head while you sleep, but on Earth gravity pulls them back into your body when you get up. However, in the small gravity of space in the head, more than half a gallon of fluid collects. This in turn puts pressure on the eyeball, causing flattening that can lead to vision damage – a disorder called space flight neuro-ocular syndrome or SANS. (Dr. Levine discovered SANS by flying cancer patients on zero G parabolic flights. They still had connections in their heads to receive chemotherapy, giving researchers an access point to measure the pressure in their brains.)
To combat SANS, researchers worked with outdoor equipment maker REI to develop a sleeping bag that fits around the waist, enclosing the lower body. A vacuum-like suction device is then activated that draws fluid toward the feet, preventing it from accumulating in the head.
A dozen people volunteered to test the technology, and the results were positive. Some questions need to be answered before NASA brings technology to the ISS, including the optimal amount of time astronauts should spend in a sleeping bag each day. They must also determine whether it should be used by every astronaut or only those at risk of developing SANS.
Still, Dr. Levine hopes SANS will no longer be a problem until NASA is ready to go to Mars. “This is perhaps one of the most critical medical problems uncovered in the last decade for the space program,” he said in a statement.
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