“Flying in space is still dangerous”

"We will have a European on the Moon in the coming years," Sergi Vaquer Araujo assured those attending the XXIII National Space Medicine Symposium on Thursday. An intensivist by training, "born in Barcelona but raised in Palma de Mallorca", the head of the ESA Space Medicine Team gave the opening lecture in Bilbao at a meeting organized by the Spanish Society of Aerospace Medicine, the IMQ and the Agency Aviation Safety State.

– How is the selection of the new ESA astronauts going?

- It is going well. All the tests and interviews have already been done, and the CEO will soon make public who the new astronauts are. We are going to have between four and six main astronauts and up to twenty or twenty-two project astronauts, who are called.

– Have many been turned away for medical reasons?

– I feel bad, but I can't tell how many. What I can tell you is that it has been an extraordinarily competitive process in which 22,000 candidates have participated. So there's been a huge rejection rate.

– For the first time there will be an astronaut with a physical disability. How has that affected the selection?

– There have been two parallel but independent selections: that of the parastronaut and that of the career astronauts. The parastronaut is a feasibility project. ESA is committed to doing everything possible to materialize a first pilot flight into space for a person with a disability. But that is not guaranteed because Europe does not have its own vehicle for manned flights. You have to convince other agencies that sending that person into space is going to be safe and useful.

The popularization of space

– What requirements must an astronaut meet?

– Must have a certain physical capacity; but that is something that can be trained. If someone is in a little lower than desirable physical shape, we can train them. We are looking for people with a university degree or equivalent, because that shows us professional maturity, and who can also work under stress, who are logical and who can solve problems. More than physical form, we are interested in mental and cognitive abilities.

Vaquer Araujo attends to European astronaut Tim Peake shortly after his landing on the Kazakh steppe in June 2016. /

NASA/Bill Ingalls

– Flying into space is still very complicated.

– It's getting easier. Aviation was at first something for the military, then something for the rich... But, when the cost was reduced and the middle class had access to tickets, there was a boom in civil aviation. I think in spaceflight we are getting closer to that moment. Flying into space is still for the rich, but there are finally commercial flights.

– But it is very risky.

– Yes, flying into space is still dangerous. But it was also dangerous to fly and we have managed to make it safe. It is a matter of technological development. We have fewer and fewer accidents, but, yes, it is still experimental.

– Astronauts continue to take off on the tip of a rocket, like Yuri Gagarin on a missile in April 1961.

-Yes and no. Yuri Gagarin was going on a missile developed in a year or two. We now have rockets that have many more years of development and much more knowledge behind them.

– Are medical problems common on long missions?

- Of course. Like any other human, astronauts have headaches, insomnia, stress... They are not serious problems. We have never had to evacuate any of them. There is a documented case of arrhythmias and stress in a cosmonaut who experienced a fire and a space collision between two vehicles. That he suffered from arrhythmias and stress was almost expected.

headache and insomnia

– What is the worst that can happen?

– Engineering accidents, vehicle failures. A depressurization, a fire, an explosion... We prepare for the worst, but in those situations there is not much to do.

– So we better forget about movies like 'Gravity'.

– 'Gravitiy' is very nice, but there are many, many things that are not at all true to reality.

– What worries you most when you have an astronaut in orbit?

– The goal of the team is to keep the astronaut at peak performance for as long as possible. That, in missions of six months, generates another series of problems that are not the usual ones. You can work twenty hours a day, but then you're devastated. The same thing happens with astronauts. We cannot ask them to work more than necessary for six months because, after two months, we will have them burned out. One of my concerns is that they work a lot, but not too much. And the line between optimizing performance and burning them is a fine one.

– What are the most common health problems?

– The most common is that your head swells when liquids go to it due to microgravity. Upon arrival, vomiting and discomfort are common. These are things that we know happen and that are not a problem. Headaches and insomnia are also frequent because the pace of work does not adapt to day and night here.

European astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, current commander of the International Space Station, exercises in the orbital complex. /

ESA/NASA

– When an astronaut lands in Kazakhstan, where you have cared for several on their way home, they are carried away.

– It has already happened that, for asking too much of an astronaut just after leaving the capsule, he has fainted in a press conference. After a six-month mission, the muscles, the heart and the balance system have to adapt to gravity. But European astronauts, who take in-orbit exercise very seriously, come back from the space station just fine.

– How much exercise do they do?

– Two hours a day, six days a week. It's a lot.

– Is the experience accumulated in the polar stations useful to space agencies?

– Yes, especially in psychological aspects. In the Antarctic bases, we have learned that in a mission you start very motivated, but in the third quarter the motivation drops to rise again at the end. We see that both in Antarctica and in space.

Missions to the Moon and Mars

– And what about medical problems and future missions to the Moon and Mars?

– A Russian surgeon removed his appendix himself at the Vostok base. It is a good example of how space medicine has to change for missions to the Moon and beyond. On those trips, astronauts have to be able to solve medical problems. They can't count on us as much as they can in Earth orbit. We can analyze the information package that reaches Earth, but they have to have taken the first steps and collected quality information.

– Give me an example.

– They have to learn to do ultrasounds. They don't have to diagnose anything, but if I need to see a kidney, they have to teach me well. The first step is to get them to be better at technical aspects and for a computer system to tell them what steps to take for the first stabilization if they start to have a fever, urinate blood or break a bone. That the system tells them what to do in the face of the problem and, at the same time, save information to send it to the doctor on Earth.

– Just thinking about a toothache on Mars, six months away from home at the very least...

– On the Moon, it would be very similar. It could take fifteen or twenty days to come back and in that time an active infection can kill you.

– What to put in a space medicine cabinet?

– NASA has a theory; we another. We are trying to reach a common point, but the decision is going to be very difficult because you will take some things at the expense of others and if you are unlucky enough to have left on Earth what you need... We start from the fact that, when things get Serious, all diseases tend to cause organ failure that have a fairly standard treatment. That's why I think we're going to be able to make a first-aid kit that responds to any illness when it gets really bad.

– With what you know and have seen, would you aspire to be an astronaut?

– Yes, as a tourist.

- Like a tourist?

– Yes, because, in addition to the physical sacrifice, the professional astronaut makes a vital sacrifice for which I am not prepared. I can't leave my family behind to risk my life and never see them again, for example. It is a real possibility, and I am not going to make that sacrifice ever. I admire the person who, knowing what he stands to lose, decides to travel to space. Besides, he does it for all of us. He is going to expand borders and I admire him.