Is there a doctor on this rocket?

5 minute read

It’s a rich man’s hobby now, but consumer space travel is just around the corner, with huge implications for medicine.

2021 was an extraordinary year for the space industry.  

July saw Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin complete historic commercial spaceflights. In September, SpaceX launched an all-civilian crew into orbit, the first ever orbital flight crewed entirely by tourists.  

And closer to home, last year saw Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s announcement of plans to triple the size of the Australian space sector by 2030, in addition to a partnership with NASA to include an Australian-made rover in a future mission.  

In my home of the NT, plans are currently under way in Arnhem Land for the launch of suborbital sounding rockets into space by mid-2022, making this the first time NASA has launched such rockets on a commercial launchpad outside of the United States.  

Of course, it will only grow from here. Space is, after all, the final frontier. Since the first flight of the Wright brothers, we have slowly marched towards the inevitable endpoint of interplanetary exploration. And along for that ride will be space tourists.  

There are two types of space tourism (at least, for now): suborbital and orbital. Suborbital space flight occurs when a spacecraft reaches space but lacks the velocity to achieve orbit. This allows participants to experience several minutes of microgravity, before returning to Earth. Suborbital flight was demonstrated by the flights of Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin this year (though the former’s inability to reach the Kármán line rendered their claimed achievement dubious to many!). Orbital spaceflight occurs when a spacecraft is put on a trajectory with sufficient velocity to put it on an orbit around Earth. 

Space tourism carries risks, and there are numerous factors to consider, such as the high +Gx acceleration launch forces to weightlessness followed quickly by the high +Gx or +Gz deceleration of re-entry, microgravity effects, vestibular system changes, fluid redistribution, radiation exposure, and the occupational hazards of spacecraft emergencies (such as loss of pressurisation), among others.  

How medical emergencies will be dealt with is also an important issue, particularly in the case of orbital flight. The nature of orbital tourism means an associated increase in vulnerability to all the effects of space, and so potential space flight participants who want to do this will require a higher degree of medical scrutiny.  

As this industry expands, doctors will be increasingly sought after for medical clearances for space flight tourism. No universal medical standards exist for this at present, but multiple guidelines have been devised over the years and the medical data that will come from continued space tourism will eventually change this.  

This might seem abstract and irrelevant for us the moment, but that will one day change.  

While currently only available to the incredibly wealthy (or lucky), many in the industry seem quick to remind us that the costs of space tourism are expected to fall rapidly over the ensuing years. Australian Chris Boshuizen, for instance, one of the passengers on Blue Origin’s second crewed flight, recently emphasised his confidence in the affordability of spaceflight in the near future.  

And though Australia currently lacks launch facilities, that too is expected to change. Our closeness to the equator and wide open spaces puts the nation in an enviable position, and suborbital space tourism launches from Australia have been proposed. Richard Branson has previously said how he “would love” to set up an operation in Australia.  

These developments have obviously not occurred without criticism. Prince William made headlines last year for his remarks criticising the space race and investment into space tourism, pleading for investment into the environment instead. These sentiments have been echoed around the world, and Bezos’ voyage was especially criticised.  

But to me this is a false dichotomy. Investing into space and the environment are not mutually exclusive, and although trips whose purpose appears to be bolstering the egos of billionaires are not something in themselves to be lauded, the most significant hindrance to environmental protection is not space, but the absence of political will. 

Investment into space over the years has contributed to and/or resulted in technologies such as the CT scanner, infrared thermometer, and artificial limbs, in addition to many other revolutionary developments (including those that allow for the monitoring of environmental destruction and the effects of climate change).  

We are an inherently Promethean species. We’ve visited the moon, the summit of Everest, and the Mariana trench. An area of medicine that is currently niche will one day be commonplace, and humankind will eventually forget that this was not always so.  

Dr Brooke Ah Shay is a GP in Maningrida, Arnhem Land, NT, and chair of the RACGP’s aerospace medicine specific interests group.

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