Outbreak in Space: Would it Really Be a Nightmare?

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Like Everything Else Extraterrestrial, an Outbreak in Space Could Wreak Havoc on a Whole New Level.

Recent events are making officials at nearly every government agency take a look at their emergency procedures. Of course, I refer to the outbreak of COVID-19 here on Earth. And NASA is definitely taking it seriously. Last week they instructed all employees who had the capability to do so to work from home. But what happens if an outbreak in space occurs? Does NASA have procedures in place for such contingencies? Well, it turns out they do, but they may or may not be effective. 

Both Bodies and Bugs Act Differently in Space

Space changes everything for organisms that evolved to live on Earth. Including humans. Yes, we’ve learned to live in our artificially created atmosphere and in zero gravity for relatively short periods of time. However, astronaut’s bodies go through some major changes during their tenure in orbit. For one thing, the stresses of launch and the absence of gravity can lead to weakened or even compromised immune systems. That means even a minor cold can be a major ordeal for an astronaut in space.

In non-virulent medical emergencies, astronauts are typically able to get the help they need via communications with doctors on earth. One astronaut even successfully treated a blood clot while aboard the ISS with such help. 

Unfortunately, contagions are another matter. NASA and the other agencies participating in ISS missions each have procedures for quarantine in case a crew member contracts a disease. NASA crew quarters, for example, contain HEPA filters, and procedures dictate regular antibacterial cleaning of all surfaces. 

In the case of a virus, if it’s a virus we already have a vaccine for, then it could perhaps be treated in a similar manner to cases on Earth. This according to Jonathan Clark, a former (six-time) crew surgeon for NASA’s Space Shuttle program and current associate professor of neurology and space medicine at the Center for Space Medicine at the Baylor College Of Medicine in an interview with Space.com. 

However, some bacteria prove to be even more resilient in space than they are on Earth. In fact, earlier this week we reported on microbes in the water that have lingered for decades. Even though the astronauts have used some of the most powerful cleaners, the little bugs remain. 

While that bacteria is mostly harmless, other bacterial strains may prove to be especially resistant to antibiotics, Clark warned.

Beyond Sci-Fi: A Very Real Danger

Sure, countless sci-fi and speculative fiction authors have used the trope. A long space mission. A fungal infection or some other alien bacterial infection ravages the crew and turns them insane. Horror ensues. 

Doesn’t seem quite so far fetched now, though, huh?

Astronauts aboard the ISS experiment with all kinds of fungus, bacteria, and other possible contagions. The whole point of those experiments is to see what effect space has on them. Given that bacteria especially have such short life spans and can mutate so quickly, it’s completely within the realm of possibility that such an organism could evolve quickly in space.

As we prepare for interplanetary travel to become commonplace within the next two decades, perhaps we can learn lessons we learn from the COVID-19 outbreak to make those missions safe for everyone. 

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Brandon Humphreys

Brandon Humphreys

I'm a wizard. I write stuff and it goes from my head into yours - Magic! Apart from that, I am the Senior Editor for Space Porn, a veteran, a rock guitarist, and a teacher.

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