‘Masturbating Chimpanzees, Boiling Blood and Spacesuits: The Human Body in Space’, by Nick Taras

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Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

June 30, 1971. Their bodies are twisted and sore from a squashed eighteen-hour flight into orbit. The three cosmonauts of Soyuz 11, a Soviet manned mission, finally dock at the world’s first space station. Their twenty-three-day adventure aboard the space station will set the world record for days in orbit. One task transcends all: the study of the human body in the alien state of weightlessness. Soviet newspapers provide regular updates on their heroes. The mission is bold. The USSR lost the race to the moon, but at least Soviet men can be the first to call space their home.

Following three weeks of scientific experiments, the Soyuz 11 crewmembers start the careful, punctilious undocking process from the space station. Mission control radios the cosmonaut team, collectively known by their call sign ‘Yantar’.

“Goodbye, Yantar, ’til we see you soon on Mother Earth.”

“Thank you, be seeing you,” Yantar’s commander, Georgy Dobrovolskiy, replies. “I am starting orientation.”

One task transcends all: the study of the human body in the alien state of weightlessness.

To reduce weight in the pressurised landing module, the cosmonauts disrobe their pressurised suits. Soon after, communication to Earth terminates. The three-hour flight home commences. In the eyes of mission control, the automatically controlled journey occurs exactly as planned. Recovery crew patiently wait in Kazakhstan for arrival. The landing module completes re-entry to Earth, deploying its parachute and igniting rockets to ensure a soft-landing. Writing about Volkov, a member of the Soyuz 11 trio, Space Safety Magazine reports, “The men had their own slot on Moscow television, young girls had turned Volkov into a teen idol and pin-up star, and their landing was accompanied by a carnival atmosphere.”

Rescue crewmembers open the scorched capsule door. But something is wrong – horrifyingly wrong. Bozhe moy. My God. “1-1-1,” the rescue team transmits. This is a 1-5 scale, with 5 meaning the cosmonaut is in excellent health. 1-1-1 signifies the worst possible news – all three cosmonauts are dead. And not just dead – they have deep blue rings on their faces, and blood has leaked from their noses and ears. It’s as if their souls have been viciously sucked right out of their pores.

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Doctors desperately attempt resuscitation, but the Yantar team has already fought an eleven-minute battle with the vacuum of space – and conscious probably only for the first minute. Later, doctors would debate about the cause of death. Perhaps twenty-three days is too long for the human body to be in weightlessness? Perhaps the heart becomes lazy without gravity’s dictatorship? A joint Soviet-American investigation takes place (the Americans were planning to use Soviet spacecraft in a future collaborative mission) and a harrowing discovery is made. When the landing module disconnected from the space station, a series of minor explosions were supposed to unbolt the landing module, but instead of exploding in sequence, they blew up concurrently, sending shockwaves through the landing module and causing an air vent to open, leading to rapid decompression.

Not only did the Yantar crew suffocate and experience severe brain haemorrhaging, but as the air pressure dropped, bubbles formed in their blood. Punishment for ebullism in the brain or spinal cord is usually convulsions and paralysis. According to the autopsy, extraordinary amounts of lactic acid were found in the blood, suggesting emotional stress and anoxia (deficiency of oxygen). Space Safety Magazine wrote, “Dobrovolski, Volkov, and Patsayev would first have experienced strong pains in their heads, chests, and abdomens, after which their eardrums would have burst and blood would have begun streaming from their noses and mouths.”

In the Modern Marvels documentary series on the tragedy, author Matthew Bencke sums up the chilling terror of the situation. “Their blood, you could say, essentially boiled.”

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Of all the billions who have lived on Earth, from the first Homo sapiens to present day you and I, every single person has died on their birth planet—or at least in its atmosphere—except the Yantar crew. The tragedy is a disturbing reminder of the hostile barrenness of space. But it also hints to just how finely tuned the human body is to the natural rules of Earth. We adapted and evolved to live in this world, and rely on it to survive. Earth not only nurtures and nourishes us, but her magnetic field and thick atmosphere also protects life against the sinister threats of space. Still, mankind’s exploratory nature does not fear the challenge of leaving home. In order to live in space or on neighbourly worlds such as Mars or the moon, the human body must consider the dangers of microgravity, pressurisation and radiation. So, what are the physical effects of living in space? And the psychological effects? The latter are often unappreciated, but just take as evidence the crew aboard Skylab 4, astronauts who disobeyed commands from Earth in what infamously became known as the first mutiny in space. But more on them later.

With Barack Obama predicting a manned mission to orbit Mars by the mid-2030s, developing technology to survive away from Earth has become the forefront of spaceflight research. So, just how does a human being learn to live where life is impossible?

Animals in Space

Before mankind risked itself to venture into the unknown, monkeys, dogs, chimpanzees, rats, rabbits, cats, tortoises and even spiders were used as… guinea pigs. Animals became collateral victims in the space race between the Soviets and the Americans, as scientists debated whether or not human beings could survive weightlessness. From the 1940s until present day, hundreds of animals have been sent into space, starting with fruit flies in 1947. Perhaps the most famous case is of the Soviet dog Laika – the first creature to orbit Earth. Laika was sent to space in 1957 without any means of returning, and died after stressful noise and harsh vibrations caused her heartbeat to reach 260 beats a minute. Another Soviet-trained dog, Bobik, went missing moments before his launch, so a stray was grabbed off the streets of Moscow and dubbed ZIB, a Russian acronym for “Substitute for Missing Dog Bobik”.

Enos, the first chimpanzee to orbit Earth, was allegedly nicknamed Enos the Penis because of his keen interest in masturbation. Colin Burgess and Chris Dubbs write in their book Animals in Space: From Research Rockets to the Space Shuttle that Enos received his nickname due to his uncouth habit, and it was even claimed that Enos masturbated in front of the media during a pre-launch press conference. (This claim was simply too funny for me not to investigate further. It’s an odd experience being three pages into a Google search about a masturbating chimpanzee in space, and eventually I found the source of the Enos the Penis myth. I won’t reveal the truth, as I wish it were never revealed to me.)

International space programmes have resulted in remarkable outcomes while testing the effects of spaceflight on animals, such as when a Russian cockroach became the first creature to give birth in space. But the most astonishing discovery was the revelation that tardigrades—micro-animals known as ‘water bears’ that only grow to half a millimetre in length—could survive ten days exposure to the vacuum of space. Water bears are the Rasputins of the animal kingdom: able to be boiled, frozen, endure pressures six times that of the deepest ocean floor and live without food or water for ten years. Their trick is a process called cryptobiosis, allowing them to dehydrate to the extreme point where their bodies contains three per cent of their usual fluid amount. Once rehydrated, they are able to function entirely as normal, even able to reproduce.

The ethics of animal treatment in the Soviet-American space programmes is infected with controversy. These animals were killed to study the effects of spaceflight on humans, with a sad endgame of political one-upmanship between the two countries and a victory in the psychological war. Yet without these innocent critters, our achievements in space would simply have never happened, because we knew so little about three particular dangers of space.

Weightlessness

Astronauts and cosmonauts who have spent considerable time in space experience identical symptoms such as atrophy of the muscles, often including a decrease in heart size. Many experience a twenty percent loss of muscle mass in only a handful of weeks. On Earth, muscles are constantly moving in opposition to gravity, but weightlessness in space inhibits this phenomenon. There is simply no resistance for muscles to push against, and daily exercise in space only slows down atrophy; it can’t prevent it. Astronaut Jerry Linenger’s bones deteriorated by fourteen per cent after only five months in zero gravity.

Furthermore, the otolith in the ear assists the body in maintaining equilibrium. In microgravity, these sensors are unable to distinguish up and down in relation to visual input. Essentially, in microgravity, your sense of balance and sense of vision are speaking different languages to the brain. Astronauts undergo extensive training to acclimate to this miscommunication and orientate themselves in microgravity. But weightlessness is a minor problem compared to the violent consequences of pressure and radiation.

Pressure

While misconceptions stemming from science fiction suggest that exposure to space results in the body exploding or the pupils popping, this isn’t reality. Next to the Soyuz 11 crew, the closest a human has come to the brutality of a vacuum was an incident at NASA in 1966. Spacesuit technician Jim Le Blanc was inside of a vacuum chamber—set at the pressure equivalent to 150,000 feet—when his spacesuit lost pressure. With no oxygen, Le Blanc passed out after fourteen seconds. The calm and swift reaction of his colleagues saved his life, but Le Blanc’s haunting last memory of the incident provides a glimpse into the wickedness of depressurisation – he remembers the saliva on his tongue boiling.

The Soyuz 11 crew were exposed to space for eleven minutes, but as no human has ever been unprotected in space for an extended period, it’s difficult to be exactly certain of the outcome. According to Nova’s television program Can We Make it to Mars?, prolonged exposure to space would result in the body expanding until it becomes a form of goo, followed by vaporisation. The $10 million price tag for each spacesuit now seems to feel justified.

Much like a balloon, spacesuits are pumped full of air, with the pressure inside the suit equal to about one-third of the Earth’s atmosphere – or the peak of Mount Everest. If you’ve seen footage of the Moon landing, you’ll notice the incredible awkward “bunny hop” the astronauts employ to move around. This is less to do with the Moon’s gravity and more a result of the lack of manoeuvrability of the spacesuit. The spacesuit requires pressure, but at the cost of dexterity. NASA are currently testing experimental suits that directly apply pressure on the body.

Radiation

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station receive a dose of over one hundred and fifty millisieverts of radiation in six months – the same amount of radiation the average human receives naturally over a lifetime. Inside the ISS, Jerry Linenger tells of closing his eyes and seeing phantasmagorical flashes of cosmic rays – subatomic particles that have come from exploded stars in the deep galaxy that travel near light speed. With enough exposure to radiation, DNA can break apart, predisposing the cell to cancer. For any extended spaceflight, radiation poses a most potent threat.

Psychology

Two years after the heartbreaking Soyuz 11 mission, Americans built the Skylab space station in 1973 to, amongst a multitude of other experiments, test the effects of weightlessness on the human body. The crew of Skylab 4 were required to perform extensive daily tasks, receiving permission for eight hours sleep and little more personal time. Feeling the strenuous toll, the astronauts asked mission control for more flexibility. The media heard whispers of the tension, questioning NASA on the “enthusiasm” of the Skylab 4 team in space. Eventually, the astronauts simply went on strike, informing NASA—who was spending millions per day hosting the team in space—of their unhappiness. This became known as the first mutiny in space. Following negotiations, a more relax schedule was adopted, and the lessons from the incident have been implemented in future missions.

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So, why does any of this matter? Well, for starters, the next giant leap for mankind would be to visit our twin planet, Mars. Mars is over one hundred times further away than the Moon, and with current propulsion technology, a crew must endure a three-year flight suffering from microgravity, radiation sickness, muscle and bone loss. But what about the psychological effects of space travel? Between June 2010 and November 2011, a full-length 520-day study was conducted to investigate the psychological effects of isolation. Based in Moscow, six daring individuals lived with little external communication in a fake spaceship, with the European Space Agency testing their psychological, medical and physical performance. The simulation provided empirical data on what space agencies can expect from a manned mission to Mars. Mankind is on the brink of exploring our sister worlds, and with the exponential increase in technology, this may happen sooner than we think. Do you think this time we should send a masturbating chimp?

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When writing for The Age, Beat Magazine and more, every time Nick Taras finishes a paragraph, he takes a bath and listens to Montell Jordan's This Is How We Do It.

This column originally appeared in The Lifted Brow #24: The Medicine Issue. Get your copy now.