TORONTO – Canada’s favourite astronaut has returned from space without bumps and bruises, but his recovery to full health could still be a windy road.
After five months away from Earth, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield planted his two feet on the ground this week. Well, maybe with some help.
There’s the dizzy spells, bumping into corners and shuffling his feet when he walks and Hadfield is even encountering some trouble with walking up or down stairs, according to latest updates from the Canadian Space Agency.
“Spaceflight is a good model for accelerated aging. Today, Chris feels like he’s an old man,” the statement, released Wednesday, said.
At a Thursday news conference, Hadfield told reporters he’s feeling the effects of returning from space.
“It feels like I played a hard game of rugby yesterday or played full-contact hockey yesterday and I haven’t played in a while,” Hadfield said.
“My neck is sore and my back is sore,” he said, comparing the feeling to getting off a ride at the CNE.
The readjustments to his body are widespread, literally, from head to toe, CSA astronaut and doctor David Saint-Jacques told Global News.
Saint-Jacques is a rookie astronaut and former family doctor. He’s been working at the mission control with the CSA and was heavily involved in Hadfield’s mission.
Floating in space transforms the human body, Saint-Jacques said.
“We’ve evolved on earth for millennia in the presence of gravity so every system of our body is used to gravity. When you remove that, it just plays havoc on your organisms so a suite of things happen,” he said.
Hadfield is likely experiencing some severe carsickness. His sense of balance is thrown off, and he may even rely on an extra set of hands to keep him standing upright sometimes.
He can’t move his head too quickly and he has to take his time standing up. Hadfield admitted to even working on keeping his head up.
His organs are even readjusting to gravity: the rest of us on Earth have hearts and lungs used to working a little extra to pump blood and oxygen up to our heads.
Hadfield’s heart and lungs had a five-month break in space – there, as Hadfield floated around, blood flow was distributed evenly. Now, his vital organs will have to work overtime to work against gravity again.
Saint-Jacques even said that when astronauts first head to space, the blood is still rushing to the top of their bodies. They end up with “big bloated red heads and thin skinny white legs” until their bodies acclimatize.
Hadfield will also remember that he’s back to gravity, Saint-Jacques noted. While he’d interview from space with his microphone floating about him, that won’t happen back on Earth.
“If you tried to do that with a cup of coffee, it wouldn’t work. He’ll need to find a table,” Saint-Jacques said.
Space does a number on your bones, your hands and feet and how you use them. Calcium is stripped from the bones and muscles atrophy, for starters.
Astronauts are forced to work out for at least two hours a day to remind their bones and joints that they’re still functioning.
“We know that if you take away activity then muscle, bone and cardiovascular systems all start to deteriorate,” according to Dr. Richard Hughson, a University of Waterloo professor and principal investigator in a few Canadian Space Agency sponsored projects.
Zero gravity for five months is akin to breaking your leg and staying in bed with a cast on, Hughson told Global News.
That’s because everything is so lightweight in space and your muscles end up on your body’s backburner.
“Your body is very conservative and says, ‘Hey, maybe I don’t need these muscles anymore and maybe I don’t need those bones anymore’ and you start to dissolve your bones,” Saint-Jacques said.
On Earth, Hadfield said his first trip to the gym was excruciating. The weight of gravity felt like people had jumped on him as he tried to do a situp.
Bone mass takes a steep decline at a pace of about one per cent per month. Keep in mind, post-menopausal women lose bone mass at about three per cent a year – this is many times worse.
Because Hadfield has been off his feet for months, they’re practically new.
“The feet have completely changed, there’s probably no more callouses on the soles of his feet at all. They’re like baby feet now,” Saint-Jacques said.
Hadfield said that his feet feel like they’re walking on hot coals now that they’re so sensitive.
In space, Hadfield and other astronauts rely on their hands to do the moving as they grab onto handrails. Their feet are used to carry objects.
“Back to earth and it’s the reverse, he’ll have to move using his legs and carry objects with his hands,” Saint-Jacques said.
Some astronauts on long missions also face changes to their eyesight, specifically losing some peripheral vision. This is a burgeoning area of space research – so far, scientists suspect the partial vision loss is due to the increase of pressure in the skull.
Hughson said that the Canadian Space Agency already has a rehabilitation plan in place and a doctor monitoring his progress, dedicated to walking Hadfield back to full recovery.
Some astronauts bounce back easily, literally within 24 hours – one even balanced on one foot while touching the top of his head to prove to Hughson that he was in tip-top shape.
Meanwhile, others could be dealing with dizzy spells, nausea and lots of bed rest before they’re ready to move around like they used to.
“There is a huge variation between how individuals respond to being in space and returning to Earth.”
Either way, it could take some time before Hadfield is back to the physical shape he was in before, Hughson said.
“It is probably going to be a couple of months before he is going to be able to go out and jog the same way he did before flight. Within two months for sure,” Hughson said.
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