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How is the UK preparing medical doctors for space programmes?

Thursday 7th April 2016
The General Medical Council is allowing doctors to study space medicine for the first time. Image: iStock/alex-mit
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    People have long been fascinated by the concept of space travel, with the first moon landing in 1969 attracting 350 million television viewers around the world.

    More recently, the UK's first European Space Agency astronaut Tim Peake has captured the imaginations of a whole new generation as he embarked on a six-month stay at the International Space Station in December 2015. Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic is preparing to launch commercial space travel to those who can afford a flight into space.

    When space travel is in the news, the topic throws up a whole host of questions from children and adults alike, ranging from how astronauts go to the toilet, to what they eat and what happens if they become ill while in space. In fact, the UK is training doctors to specialise in space medicine for the first time ever.

    Here, we take a look at how this is being made possible, as well as the health problems astronauts are likely to experience, and how a specialist diet may be able to help.

    Astronaut health problems

    Gennady Padalka, a Russian cosmonaut, is currently the person who has spent the longest time in space, at a total of 879 days across five missions - something that will have had a significant impact on his body, potentially putting him at risk of unusual health problems in the future.

    According to the UK Space Agency, after just five months in space, the body can lose up to 40 per cent of its total muscle mass and as much as 12 per cent of its bone mass - a decline equivalent to a 20-year-old's body deteriorating to that of a 60-year-old in just a few months. This puts astronauts at greater risk of osteoporosis, and research shows that only around 50 per cent of this lost bone density is typically recovered after nine months rehabilitation.

    What's more, astronauts are exposed to higher-than-normal levels of radiation in space, putting them at an increased risk of developing certain types of cancer upon their return to Earth.

    A spaceman's diet

    Astronauts need to stay as healthy as possible while in space to ensure they are fit enough to carry out essential maintenance tasks, and return home at the end of their adventure.

    Space diets have long caused problems for food manufacturers, as the products they supply for missions need to be edible, nutritious and able to survive millions of miles above the Earth. Therefore, powdered or dehydrated foods are usually sent with astronauts into space, although when a new astronaut joins the International Space Station, fresh fruit is usually taken with them as a rare luxury.

    However, ahead of Tim Peake's space mission, he worked alongside high-profile chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to develop a menu featuring his favourite foods, just repackaged and altered so they would be suitable for consumption in space to provide the astronaut with a taste of home.

    The project proved successful, with the chef able to provide Peake with a balanced diet featuring comfort foods including an Alaskan salmon dish that successfully evoked memories of his childhood, as well as sausages and mash, and bacon sandwiches.

    Space doctors

    In a bid to ensure that the UK is at the forefront of space medicine and is an authority in treating astronauts as space travel becomes increasingly popular in the coming years, the General Medical Council (GMC) is launching new modules to train doctors in this discipline.

    Aviation and Space Medicine is being added to the curriculum for trainee doctors, joining around 60 other modules that allow them to specialise in a particular area of medicine.

    Those who choose to boldly go down this route will get the opportunity to visit space centres, such as NASA, alongside learning about the impact of long-term air travel on the human body, meaning they will not just be qualified to treat astronauts, but also airline staff.

    The course is set to be funded by businesses in the aviation and aerospace industries.

    Dr Kevin Fong, a space medicine expert at University College London, commented: "It's thrilling to see the birth of this new medical speciality. Medicine has always been at the frontiers, pushing back boundaries, and, as we extend our reach into space, it should be there too, as part of the voyage of exploration.

    "We are approaching a time when space travel may be opened up to more of us than ever before and it's important that the UK has healthcare experts who can support this new and emerging space industry."

    Written by James Puckle

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