Moon tourists risk rough ride, experts say

March 1, 2017 by Laurence Coustal, Mariëtte Le Roux
Annoyances on the journey could include unexpected claustrophobic freak-outs, and a disturbed sleep cycle which will translate into heavy jetlag back on home soil

Non-stop vomiting, a puffy face and the constant need to pee: Volunteers for a week-long loop around the Moon may be in for a rough ride even if all goes to plan.

In the week that SpaceX announced it would launch two tourists to skirt Earth's satellite in 2018, experts agreed the health effects would chiefly be minor and short-lived.

These are the stakes:

Feeling green

"Like every single astronaut who goes into space, they're going to get... very bad motion sickness," Daniel Grant of the Centre for Altitude Space and Extreme Environment Medicine in London, told AFP.

This is because the balance sensors in the inner ear which tell us which way is up and down, get all confused in zero gravity.

Some astronauts get over it within hours, while others need days—clearly a problem for a trip lasting only a week.

In bad news for selfie enthusiasts, another symptom is a puffy face (and thinner legs) as body fluids, pulled downward by gravity on Earth, spreading out and upward in the weightless environment.

This can also lead to profuse urination—tricky in an environment where everything, including liquids, float.

Bones and muscles will change too, say the experts, although a week is probably too short to cause lasting weakness.

Other annoyances on the journey could include unexpected claustrophobic freak-outs, and a disturbed sleep cycle which will translate into heavy jetlag back on home soil.

Radiation risk

A potentially graver, but less likely, peril is elevated cancer risk from exposure to radiation outside Earth's protective magnetosphere.

Spaceships have built-in protection against radiation, which is hundreds of times higher than on Earth.

Radiation doses for a short trip like this one would be low, "but that does not mean there is no risk at all," said Thomas Berger, a radiation biology expert at the German DLR space agency.

It grows with so-called solar particle events—massive ejections of protons from the Sun which can deliver highly concentrated doses of radiation.

These events, which can last two days, are unpredictable but rare.

A major eruption was registered in 1972, between two Apollo missions to the Moon. None has occurred while humans were in space.

If it does, spacecraft have "storm shelters".

But if humans were somehow to get caught in the blast, high exposure could cause leaving the travellers too ill to control their vessel.

In an extreme case, they could die.

Technical problem

The main danger to space tourists, observers agree, is spacecraft failure.

"In my view, the biggest risks are technical failure on blastoff, during the voyage, or on reentry into Earth's atmosphere," said Martin Giard of France's National Institute for Earth Sciences and Astronomy.

"There is an overall risk of an accident... something going wrong," added John Logdsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute at the George Washington University.

But he stressed "the technology is even better now than 45 years ago", when we last sent humans into deep space.


Up to now, said Grant, only extremely healthy people, "basically perfect humans", have been sent to space after months of training and health checks.

"With space tourism, you're going to start seeing some unhealthy people getting sent into space. If they need to be on medication or they have illnesses in the background, we don't know how they react in because we've never seen that before."

For most, the payoff far outweighs the risks.

"There are of course, a lot of risks," said Berger. It doesn't mean you have to scare people. But it is always necessary to inform everybody about possible risks, and this starts with the risk of sitting on a rocket."

Explore further: Infographic: Juno, built to withstand intense radiation environments

Related Stories

NASA selects nine space radiobiology research proposals

October 7, 2014

NASA's Human Research Program will fund nine proposals for ground-based research that will help enable extended and safer human exploration of space by quantifying and, ultimately, reducing the risks posed by space radiation.

Active tracking of astronaut rad-exposures targeted

July 20, 2016

Radiation is an invisible hazard of spaceflight, but a new monitoring system for ESA astronauts gives a realtime snapshot of their exposure. The results will guide researchers preparing for deep-space missions to come.

Recommended for you

Brown dwarf detected in the CoRoT-20 system

July 16, 2018

An international group of astronomers has discovered a new substellar object in the planetary system CoRoT-20. The newly identified object was classified as a brown dwarf due to its mass, which is greater than that of the ...

'X'-ploring the Eagle Nebula and 'Pillars of Creation'

July 13, 2018

The Eagle Nebula, also known as Messier 16, contains the young star cluster NGC 6611. It also the site of the spectacular star-forming region known as the Pillars of Creation, which is located in the southern portion of the ...

Observatories team up to reveal rare double asteroid

July 13, 2018

New observations by three of the world's largest radio telescopes have revealed that an asteroid discovered last year is actually two objects, each about 3,000 feet (900 meters) in size, orbiting each other.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Mar 01, 2017
Oh my! "...unexpected claustrophobic freak-outs"

I remember reading a pleasure boat sailing story where a fresh crew was taken on at one particular port, and this happened to a fellow out at sea. They had to keep him tied in his bunk which must have only exacerbated his horrors.
Mark Thomas
5 / 5 (1) Mar 02, 2017
"Like every single astronaut who goes into space, they're going to get... very bad motion sickness." - Daniel Grant

This is vastly overstated. Doing a little fact checking, Wikipedia says about half get it and only 10% of those get it bad. Other sources, have slightly higher numbers, but not "non-stop vomiting" the entire time.

NASA has been sending people into space for long time, not to mention maintaining a continuous presence in space since the year 2000, so it is no big surprise they have motion sickness meds for astronauts if necessary.

If I had the spare millions of dollars, I would sign up in a New York minute!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.