In December 2018, Virgin Galactic made headlines by becoming the first “space tourism” company to reach the mesosphere, about 51 miles above the Earth’s surface. The amazing feat, accomplished by SpaceShipTwo, was heralded as the start of a “new chapter of space exploration,” according to Virgin Galactic owner Richard Branson.
SpaceShipTwo was piloted by trained pilots rather than astronauts, and they were only in the air for just shy of two hours, which means that they had to make minimal adjustments after landing safely back on Earth. For future space tourists and astronauts, however, the situation will be vastly different.
Spending time outside of the Earth’s atmosphere can wreak havoc on one’s body and mind. But the challenges of returning to regular life after space don’t stop there: Reintegrating into normal civilian life can also be difficult for returning astronauts. Here are four unique challenges that returning astronauts of all types may find themselves dealing with.
Life in space has a significant impact on an individual’s body. Returning astronauts have to re-acclimate their body to life with gravity, and it may take a long time to get back on track physically. According to legal professionals, 12,300 workers are injured on the job every day, and due to the health risks associated with their work, astronauts are among those with the highest risk of injury.
Commander Chris Hadfield returned to Earth in 2013 after spending five months on the International Space Station (ISS). He faced numerous physical challenges after landing back on Earth, the astronaut told Space.com.
“Right after I landed, I could feel the weight of my lips and tongue and I had to change how I was talking,” Hadfield said. “I hadn’t realized that I learned to talk with a weightless tongue.” Hadfield spent several months in physical therapy after returning to build up muscle mass and bone density lost while in orbit.
While gravity is the biggest culprit when it comes to physical challenges upon return to Earth, studies show that space travel may have other physical repercussions. For instance, an individual’s susceptibility to cancer may increase after spending time in space. Studies show that space travel negatively impacts a particular class of white blood cells known as “natural killer” (NK) cells, which live up to their name by effectively killing cancer cells in the body.
One’s mental health may also take a hit during prolonged space flight. Astronauts with NASA must meet certain mental health requirements before being given the okay to leave Earth. Many astronauts have experience in high-stress occupations in fields such as military flight and emergency medicine. Space tourists may require training to learn to deal with the mental stress caused by space travel.
Claustrophobia, the fear of enclosed spaces, is a possible side effect of space flight, as astronauts only have a small area to move around. Prospective astronauts should challenge themselves by working for a period of time in small spaces prior to lift-off.
Other ways that astronauts manage their mental health include training with a focus on repetition. Boredom is another mental challenge that astronauts must face during space flight and recover from upon return.
Isolation is a big part of life for astronauts on the ISS, and it may be for future space tourists as well. Astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent 340 days aboard the ISS, described a sort of culture shock of “all the people there when you’ve seen so few people for so long.”
Astronauts may struggle to acclimate to crowds and large spaces after spending time in small spaces with few other people. In that case, they may want to find a private sanctuary where they can unwind away from others. Safe, private spaces such as a man or lady cave are valuable when it comes to acclimating to people and wide open spaces.
But socializing as often as possible (without causing excessive discomfort) is another tool for acclimation. Spending quality time with friends and family after a long period of near total isolation is integral to getting back on one’s feet after a long period in space.
As an astronaut acclimates to life back on Earth, getting a job may be part of that process. But how does one find employment after living out their dreams in space? The process can be difficult for many astronauts. After spending months isolated, it can feel jarring to adapt to new workplace procedures and socialization.
Those who retire from space flight as a profession and want to enter into an entirely new venture must equip themselves to succeed. The title of “astronaut” looks great on a resume, and it can demonstrate a job candidate’s willingness to learn and adapt in any industry.
Adaptation is a cornerstone of lifelong learning, and former astronauts can bring their unique experiences into their new role back on Earth and thrive no matter the job description. Devoting some time to personal development can help these candidates relearn the necessary social skills needed to succeed.
Space travel is a lifelong dream for many, and with the possibility of space tourism opportunities in the near future, more people than ever can realize their dreams of becoming an astronaut. However, life in space can be difficult, as we’ve seen from those astronauts who return home from a long trip off-planet. In particular, upon returning, astronauts may need extensive training in order to mentally and physically recover for life back on Earth — but those things are not out of reach.
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