The Limits Of Medicine

The next small step

BMJ 2004; 329 doi: (Published 16 December 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;329:1441

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  1. Kevin Fong, research fellow (
  1. 1 Centre for Aviation, Space and Extreme Environments, Middlesex Hospital, London W1T 3AA

    The microgravity experienced in space missions has serious effects on human physiology. How to get a crew to Mars in an optimal state for landing and exploration remains a matter of some debate

    Astrodynamic considerations and existing propulsion technology limit the speed with which a crew can be delivered to and returned from the surface of Mars. A typical, energy efficient mission profile might involve six months of outward bound journey, up to a year and a half of exploration on the planet surface, and a return flight lasting another six months.1 All told this comes to nearly one thousand days, more than twice the length of any single mission in the history of human space flight and an order of magnitude longer than routine International Space Station operations.

    Several hazards await the crews of Mars missions, including radiation exposure and the psychological stress of spending 30 months in a confined habitat, further from Earth than any human in history, with death no more than a hull's thickness away. This article focuses on the effects of prolonged weightlessness on the human body and our current understanding of the effects of microgravity on physiology.

    Physiology of microgravity

    Prolonged exposure to microgravity seems to affect almost all physiological systems. Disturbances of haemopoiesis, immunosuppression, and endocrine changes have all been observed.24 The effects of microgravity that are of key importance to human space operations are those on the musculoskeletal, neurovestibular, and cardiovascular systems.

    Effects on the musculoskeletal system

    That demineralisation of bone should occur in the face of the unloading associated with weightlessness is predictable from Wolffe's law. The rate and extent of this process is considerable, with losses of 1-2% of bone mass per month in flight.5 If unabated over the duration of a mission to Mars, this bone demineralisation, with its resultant hypercalcaemia and …

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