‘Crazy, wild ride home’: How returning to Earth impacts an astronaut’s body
Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques‘ journey back to Earth ends Monday night, but he has another task at hand now — recovering from the six-month trip.
Saint-Jacques, who set a record for the longest single spaceflight by a Canadian at 204 days, will face quite a few challenges in getting his body used to regular life on Earth, according to those who have gone through the process.
Robert Thirsk, a Canadian astronaut who previously held the longest single spaceflight record, told Global News that every moment of being in space is “incredible.” Returning to Earth, he said, is the “icing on the cake.”
“It’s a moment, it’s a few hours that they will remember forever,” Thirsk said of landing.
“I say that because of the dynamism. It’s a crazy, wild ride home.”
Thirsk said it can become turbulent and difficult to breathe at some points, particularly when the main parachute opens.
“That was the climax of the ride home for me, this bouncing, bungee-like pendulum motion underneath the shrouds of the parachute was really wild and disturbing,” he recalled.
WATCH: David Saint-Jacques holds final press conference from orbit
Immediate effects of landing
And that was just the beginning of the process.
“Every single organ system in my body was affected by the weightlessness, which meant that each organ system had to re-adapt again to Earth,” he said, explaining that for the first day he needed help standing and walking steadily.
For the first couple days, Thirsk said he felt light-headed, had foggy vision, and his heart wasn’t pumping blood the same way as before.
After those symptoms faded, he noted he didn’t feel “normal” until about six weeks on Earth. And other recovery processes, such as rebuilding muscle and bone density, can take several months or more.
According to NASA, one month is space can cause astronauts to lose as much bone mass as an elderly person on Earth does in one year.
Thirsk’s experience isn’t unique. Chris Hadfield, who spent five months on the International Space Station, had a similar adjustment period after returning to Earth.
In a May 2013 press conference, Hadfield described moments after landing: “Right after I landed, I could feel the weight of my lips and tongue and I had to change how I was talking. I hadn’t realized that I learned to talk with a weightless tongue.”
WATCH: Adjusting to being back on planet Earth
After landing, Space.com explained that Hadfield had to undergo daily medical checks. Some were for research on astronaut health, while others were to monitor his own recovery.
It’s no surprise the recovery process is lengthy — another Canadian astronaut, Jeremy Hansen, described landing to be “sort of like a NASCAR crash.”
“They’re going to hit the earth sort of like a NASCAR crash. So it’s pretty violent landing. They’ll arrive with a bang and then it’ll be over,” Hansen said.
Beyond physical health, there is often a mental health component to recovery, NASA has observed.
Being in a cramped space with a few crew members for months can cause isolation, feelings of confinement and even depression, the space agency’s website explains.
Because of physical and mental health struggles, Hansen noted that astronauts all recover slightly differently, and the readjustment process can be trying for their entire family.
In Saint-Jacques’ case, Hansen said he seems to have “adapted well” to life in space and has enjoyed his time there. He noted the trip is a testament to how research and preparation for such trips have improved.
Research on astronaut health
Researching the health effects of being in space has helped agencies better prepare astronauts for space, and lessen the recovery time.
For example, NASA created exercise regimes for astronauts to prevent bone and muscle loss. On average, astronauts exercise for two hours per day while in space.
While research has been done on the topic of astronaut recovery, there are still many unknowns, Hansen said, noting that’s something the Canadian Space Agency is trying to fix.
WATCH: Canadian astronaut’s journey home after 205-day mission
“We understand now that space is kind of this analog to aging here on the planet. We send astronauts to space, and things happen to them in a month or six months that would happen to people over years,” Hansen said.
Some of those effects are reversed upon return to Earth, he noted.
“If we can understand how the body can age, but then reverse, this can unlock some of the secrets to helping us live healthier lives in Canada and on the planet,” Hansen explained.
— With files from Global News reporter Jeff Semple
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