Wednesday, November 21, 2018


This past week, I had an interesting milestone, and decided to share the results.
I first did a "recap" of my years of experiences in the NASA Spaceflight Simulation program at the Flight Analog Research Unit (FARU) run by Johnson Space Center in both Houston and on Galveston Island. A kind Twitter follower named Brian Murdock submitted it to a threading service in article format. Good stuff!

Story of the NASA Space Simulation Studies

Long story short, my NASA Sim Studies (conducted 2008-2013 by Wyle BioAstronautics), carried risks of lowered immunity, plasma volume drop, vestibular (balance) issues, and heart enlargement in the short term -- but in the long term, after physical rehabilitation, possible risks still include changes in eyesight, cardiac weakening, muscle degradation, and lessened bone mineral density.

Every new day brings every woman alive closer to menopause, so of course I wondered in particular about bone density as I age. Thus far, in the decade after my micro-gravity and lunar gravity simulations, I did have to get new glasses because nearsightedness took a big jump, and of course I wondered -- as all analogs and astronauts must -- about how our medical numbers would look after many years. Am I in danger of being in a wheelchair as I was for the week after my longest sim ended? Probably not. But long-term dangers still remain a big question.

Bone Scans after Spaceflight Simulations

I get blood work from time to time, and in 2016, had an invasive workup that matched a few of the tests I underwent back in sims; I also get my blood pressure measured frequently. I asked for cholesterol levels in addition to things NASA previously measured: Hematocrit, Ferritin (iron levels), and Alanine Aminotransferase (liver enzymes).

One thing I had not repeated since my 5-year mark was the Dual-Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry -- abbreviated to DEXA or DXA, though more often referred to by orthopaedists as "Bone Densitometry."

DexaFit San Carlos 

Due to the sheer size of DEXA machines, such tests weren't as common as other diagnostics, and often required a specialist. Today, however, DXA scans are more widely available.

If you're curious about muscle mass, fat percentage, bone density and other body composition measurements that may judge your risk for future heart disease or osteoporosis, start at DEXASCAN.COM. This provides explanations and maps, so you can see if you have scanning services near you. Some require physician referral; others are freely available to all, and may indicate if more tests are advisable for certain conditions.

Upon securing an appointment, you'll be asked via email and web forms to provide a "Pre-Test Journal"-- mostly simple data ensuring you aren't pregnant, if you smoke, how you exercise, and you may add stats on allergies, sleeping hours, and dietary habits. It's helpful to note if medical issues run in your family, so technicians can translate results for you in terms of what you can do in the future to prevent onset of certain conditions.

All that is required of you is to lay still for about 6 minutes.

Lunar DEXA Scanner - How it works

I went to a site in Silicon Valley called DexaFit in San Carlos. Capable technicians made me feel comfortable and gave me two scans in a mere 30 minutes, then gave knowledgeable explanations of how the scans work, and how to interpret results. Thanks so much for  swift and efficient experience, Lizzy and Emily! I got to my subsequent lunch date on time.

The large scanner sends a thin, invisible beam of ionizing radiation (low-dose x-rays) with two distinct energy peaks through the skeleton. One peak is absorbed mainly by soft tissue and the other by bone. The soft tissue amount can be subtracted from the total and what remains is a patient's bone mineral density.

Happily, my borderline-anxious curiosity was rewarded only with relief. In the graphic above, the white square is my score. The aqua waves are the average for each age group.

My T-score is higher than average for my age, and better now than when I left sims, likely due to consistent exercise, genetics (never having broken any, strong bones were why I got into the astronaut analog program in the first place!), weight-lifting since the age of 19, and luck. As I put it to my parents later that day: "I can now officially tell you not to worry. NASA can't kill me even when they're trying!"

Space enthusiasts will further appreciate the irony of the GE scanner brand name.

DexaFit San Carlos

How much do you truly know about your BONES?? Take a quick bone quiz, here!

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Carl Sagan Day 2018

Happy 10th Annual Carl Sagan Day!

As of tomorrow, it's been a full decade of HAIL, SAGAN! Once again, colleges and museums have planned awesome planetarium shows, educator workshops, family activities, telescope classes, and star-gazing. From Carl Sagan book readings in SC to Florida Meetups for Carl Sagan Day to MIT lectures Sagan Day 2018, celebrations honor what would have been Sagan's 84th birthday.

Carl Sagan and the Voyager Golden Records

Best known from the original COSMOS series of the 1980s (the most widely watched program in PBS history!), Carl Sagan is known for his part in the Voyager Golden Records aboard spacecrafts Voyager I and II, and their longevity; his many fiction and non-fiction books packed with highly-quotable written material, and his tireless advocacy for science and astronomy.

He is immortalized in a science museum near his Ithaca, NY home, which includes the Carl Sagan Planet Walk scale solar system, complete with stampable passport at every planet, and narrated by Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Sagan taught at Cornell and Harvard universities, and worked at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. Other titles included technology officer of the Icarus planetary research journal, Planetary Science Chair at the Astronomical Society, Astronomy Chairman at the Advancement of Science Association, and Co-Founder of the Planetary Society, the Earth's largest space-interest group.

Carl Sagan passed away in December 1996 at the age of 62, and was buried in New York (Lakeview Cemetery, Ithaca) right beside his parents.

An astronomer, philosopher, professor and NASA consultant, Carl Sagan won 30 public awards, published over 600 scientific articles and authored or co-authored 20 books. I’ll never weary of recommending Pale Blue Dot to anyone who will listen!  The unmanned Mars Pathfinder spacecraft was renamed the Carl Sagan Memorial Station in 1997. Asteroid 2709 Sagan is also named in his honor.

Sagan was instrumental in the early Mariner missions to Venus, determined landing sites on Mars for the Viking Lander probes, and also assembled the first physical messages sent into space.  He was instrumental in establishing the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), urging the use of radio telescopes to detect signals from other intelligent life. Along with Frank Drake, he also composed the Arecibo message, beamed once into space in 1974.

Carl Sagan with the VLA

He's one of those people who makes you scratch your head and think, "What the heck have I been DOING with my time?!"

Carl had the ability to make space "knowable" to audiences of all ages. He was known for popularizing  science in a way that inspired people to understand both our insignificance in the larger universe, but also, paradoxically, the absolutely precious nature of our enormously unlikely existence.

Follow me on Twitter today for #TriviaThursday, all day today, which is all about Carl Sagan's life, works, activism, and scientific accomplisments! Speaking for space geeks everywhere... thanks a billion, Carl.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Space Travel Still Sucks

Even back when "" was all the rage with their irreverent lists, I wasn't always a fan of basic "Internet Top 10" lists. However, once in awhile -- and when my space blog was the hot new thing in the fledgling "Spacetweep" community -- something grabbed me that was worth commentary.

One particular article has remained on my mind through the years, and if you missed it, click graphic to read the:

6 Reasons Space Travel Will Always Suck

They weren't wrong. Space travel sucks. Space travel has always sucked. No matter what Elon Musk tries to spin, space travel will indeed continue to suck. Amazingly, most people still say they want to experience it... but upon speaking to them, it's clear that's because even people who truly support space agencies don't always know what it takes to survive off-Earth, and how sick you can become without the comforting gravity in which you evolved.

The saddest-but-truest statement starts out the article with a big bang: "We love movies about space, but are continually bored by actual space travel."

This is not what space travel will look like. Ever.
Yeah, we wish.

They drive home the point that even for far-off future generations, space travel may not meet our expectations, because...
6. There is No Sex in Space
5. It'll Be More Like a Submarine Than Star Trek
4. Life in Zero-Gravity is Horrible
3. There's Nothing to See
2. Getting Anywhere Interesting Means Never Going Home
1. In Space, On-Star Won't Do Shit For You

I read the entire article, desperately hoping I could disagree with it. Nope. They nailed it on every count.

Space Travel Will Make You Sick
Spacebarf: actually the least of your worries.

There is no way to reproduce, so we aren't going anywhere as a group. Cramped quarters, not a cruise ship. Weightlessness messes with your head, your balance, your blood, your muscles (including your heart) and your bones. I know all this first-hand from my spaceflight simulations, which I performed for Johnson Space Center between 2008-2010. At one point while adjusting to micro-gravity, even the fillings in my teeth hurt.

All that just to travel through 99.99% of blackness – perhaps to reach something that will be the last thing you ever see. That's if you make it at all, considering the massive dangers… because you're dead if even the slightest thing goes wrong.

Guys like Bas Lansdorp, Dennis Tito, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, Peter Diamandis, and especially Elon Musk just make me roll my eyes. It's all well and good to be rich and visionary about hardware, but they are selling a fantasy.  

I would give anything if even just one of them repeated my spaceflight simulations so that they actually understood what space flight can do to the human body.

They talk like we are leaving for Mars in a year or ten. We aren't. 

Space Travel Isn't All It's CRACKED Up To Be
Hey, suppose we go to all that trouble... and THIS
is the only thing on the other end of the journey?

Key concept: "Your life depends on your time aboard the starship being skull-crushingly boring."

So apparently, that's the funny part. The unfunny part? Underneath all the hyperbole, the message is clear: We all want the "future" of space travel to get here, but few truly understand the reality of what it takes to get us there. We have to go through many, many downers before we get to the payoff.

Why is all of this on my mind? Once upon a time, I put my body and brain on the line for science. As an astronaut analog, I spent more time in contraptions simulating micro-gravity than most astronauts have spent in actual orbit. The longest any astronauts spent on the Moon was on the Apollo 17 mission, where Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt were on the lunar surface for 4 days. My lunar study hardware put me in 6% gravity for 7 days. 

I have a 10-year bone density DEXA scan coming up. I'll see if there were any lasting effects from my participation in the study of how leaving Earth gravity affects humans long term.