back to article I studied hard, I trained for years. Yay, now I'm an astronaut in space. Argggh, leukemia!

Floating silently among the stars may sound idyllic, but the longer you stay in space, the worse it is for your immune system, according to this latest research. NASA teamed up with boffins at the University of Arizona, University of Houston, and Louisiana State University, in the US, to analyse blood samples from eight …

  1. Ole Juul

    How does this compare?

    It would be interesting to compare this to some of the jobs here on earth. I wouldn't be surprised if some are worse off.

    1. Paul Kinsler

      Re: compare this to some of the jobs here on earth. I

      This is a very good point - however the comparison turns out, it would provide a point of reference to get a sense of what the additional risk might be.

      "I don't mind being a coal miner, but becoming a career astronaut is far too risky!" :-)

    2. Blazde

      Re: How does this compare?

      Indeed. For starters the NK activity drop is not dramatically higher than observed in shift workers (and in subjects in sleep-deprivation studies). Unsurprisingly astronauts on-mission are routinely sleep-deprived too:

      It sounds like there could be some additional effect but it's strange this new study doesn't mention sleep once in 33 pages.

      1. Alister Silver badge

        Re: How does this compare?

        It sounds like there could be some additional effect but it's strange this new study doesn't mention sleep once in 33 pages.

        That's because the scientists carrying out the study are looking for results that are NEW and EXCITING and SPAAAACE and WOO!, and anything so mundane as sleep deprivation doesn't fit into the narrative...

        Sorry, I went a bit Bombastic Bob there.

    3. bombastic bob Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: How does this compare?

      I think the comparison between veterans and rookies is compelling enough to suggest that it's not being in space, but dealing with the stress-related effects on the immune system, and YES compare this to other high stress professions like the military, police, fire, ambulance, and trial lawyers. Yeah, no kidding!

      This is the kind of study that would make an _outstanding_ doctoral thesis for med students. The effects of stress and inexperience in a high stress occupation, not just space itself, on blood chemistry and the immune system, and *IS* space *REALLY* a factor?

      1. Alister Silver badge

        Re: How does this compare?

        Bob, I don't know why you were downvoted for that - maybe it's a Pavlovian response... :)

        I agree, such a study should be carried out.

  2. ratfox Silver badge

    And people wonder why aliens haven't come to visit...

    1. VikiAi Silver badge

      Well that gives an interesting perspective on why H.G.Wells' Martians died - it wasn't that they had no diseases on Mars, but that their immune systems were severely depleted by their journey here!


      On another tangent: "In space, no-one can hear you sneeze!"

      1. Mark 85 Silver badge

        I'll have to reread the book. I thought it was because the Martians hadn't been exposed to measles or any other earth disease so their immune system didn't know to fight it.

        1. VikiAi Silver badge

          You are largely correct: the particular disease that took them down isn't specified (the narrator says 'bacteria', but I am not sure they differentiated between bacteria and viri back then, or even if medical scientists did, if the journalist-narrator would).

          "But there are no bacteria in Mars, and directly these invaders arrived, directly they drank and fed, our microscopic allies began to work their overthrow."

          Though since the story is explicitly presented as the narrator's interpretation of events, and since he didn't have access to the details of conditions on mars, what he described could have been an educated guess and it could actually have been space-travel-immune-defficiency. .... Or that the Martians had bought whole-sale into the Anti-Vaxer movement, for that matter! :-P

          1. A-nonCoward


            viri, "men" is plural of vir.

            Virus is Greek; plural is virus, or, in politically correct speech, viruses.

            1. VikiAi Silver badge

              Re: viri?

              Heh. If what I said was understood without unreasonable difficulty or ambiguity, it was a correct use by the actual purpose of human language. :-P

              (But I have noted your correction and may even remember it for more than the rest of the day!)

        2. james 68

          The problem with that is: would an earthly virus or bacterium even be able to infect an alien lifeform? Given the relatively low cross infection rates in different terrestrial species it's very unlikely that they could colonise something which would be so biologically different. Death due to a native Martian infection compounded by reduced immunity caused by prolonged space travel is much more likely. Though given that the book is based in early 1900's science they could conceivably mistake the deaths as being caused by terrestrial means.

          1. Mage Silver badge

            Virus vs Bacteria

            Viruses are fairly DNA specific and related to particular range of hosts. The origin may even be broken host DNA.

            Most bacteria are harmless. Many can feed on any suitable nutrient so much less species specific. Many are beneficial. Often it's the by-products that are poisonous.

            Other biological risks are yeasts, fungus, amoeba, parasites (often narrower in range of hosts), insects and related bites that are poisonous or cause allergic reaction (spiders vs bees) and the largest are predators or antagonised herbivores. The Komodo dragon is unusual as it bites or scratches prey and then follows it waiting for it to die of blood poisoning, a symbioses with bacteria?

            I researched all this to write SF. It's unlikely aliens would get the amino acids and vitamins they need, or we would eating their food. Even here vitamin needs and amino acids can be species specific. Few need vitamin C, some need vitamins that are not used by humans. Cats have more deficiencies than dogs on a vegan diet, they'll die on it without additives.

            Sugar is simple, some fats are simple. Many Alien carbohydrates, fats and some proteins might be digestible to an extent (or ours by them). Without at least added vitamins and amino acids we'd die. Looking at weird life here suggest the reverse might be true for Aliens, or at least few foods might give trace things they really really need.

            You'd die living only on rabbit.

            1. GruntyMcPugh Silver badge

              Re: Virus vs Bacteria

              @Mage: "You'd die living only on rabbit."

              I'm having a QI flashback : -)

            2. Alister Silver badge

              Re: Virus vs Bacteria


              Interesting post.

              Forgive me though, but it was my understanding that the Martians in WotW were draining the blood of humans to use for food, so their postulated body chemistry cannot have been far different from our own?

              1. Mage Silver badge

                Re: Virus vs Bacteria

                It was just a story.

                However most poison by products of a bacteria might be generally toxic, like hydrogen cyanide.

                The blood might have proteins, fat, glucose etc, probably generally utilisable. Blood can be used as a fertiliser for plants. It's mostly water. The main thing after that is protein. Low in fat and sugars. Some vitamins (possibly no use to aliens).

                Blood is the only animal product mentioned in the bible forbidden to Noah (not Jewish), Jews and Christians of Gentile origin in the book of Acts (No doubt because of the Covenant with Noah). "The life is in the blood".

                I've no idea why H.G. Wells picked blood. Curiously the ships mentioned were already obsolete when he wrote the story (1897).

                "The quick pace of change meant that many ships were obsolete as soon as they were finished, and that naval tactics were in a state of flux. Many ironclads were built to make use of the ram or the torpedo, which a number of naval designers considered the important weapons of naval combat. There is no clear end to the ironclad period, but towards the end of the 1890s the term ironclad dropped out of use. New ships were increasingly constructed to a standard pattern and designated battleships or armored cruisers." — Wikipedia. Also stated elsewhere.

          2. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            >The problem with that is: would an earthly virus or bacterium even be able to infect an alien lifeform?

            In the case of Mars this is considered theoretically possible. Rocks from Earth are now found on the moon. Rocks from Mars have been found on Earth. Life bearing rocks from Earth could then also have reached Mars. In that case life on Mars may have some compatibility with life on Earth (chirality, for instance) to the extent scientists want to be cautious.

            It even goes the other way, some readings suggests Mars cooled down faster than Earth and this life could have started on Mars and then transplanted by ejected rocks to Earth at a time when out planet had cooled down.

            So for life within our solar system we have good reasons to be cautious. For alien life on Alpha Centauri it might be a lot safer.

            1. Claptrap314 Silver badge

              I can assure you that alien life on Alpha Centauri is most definitely NOT safer. Sid Meier has made this very clear.

          3. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

            "The problem with that is: would an earthly virus or bacterium even be able to infect an alien lifeform?"

            I bet Jeff Goldbloom could do it!!

      2. Spherical Cow Bronze badge

        "In space, no-one can hear you sneeze!"

  3. Ian Michael Gumby Silver badge

    Kinda makes sense...

    The researchers are unsure why old-timers – one participant had spent a whopping 340 days in space – had stronger immune systems compared to first-timers in space. It could be down to age, or the stresses of adapting to a new, unfamiliar environment.

    There's that old saying... "If it doesn't kill you, it will make you stronger".

    So repeated exposure to space would help your immune system from degenerating in space.

    So we should be shuttling candidates routinely up and down from ISS as part of their training....

    1. Paul Crawford Silver badge

      Re: Kinda makes sense... involving lots of disgusting risky deviant sexual contact perhaps? All for the immune system's benefit of course, no ulterior motives, none at all!

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Kinda makes sense...

        > involving lots of disgusting risky deviant sexual contact perhaps?

        I have this link to a great picture of a girl in t-t-tight latex with a bubble helmet on. Is that sufficiently deviant?

    2. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: Kinda makes sense...

      You might be right about repeated exposure. The wihte cells that survive come back stronger. Rinse and repeat. The 'nauts with the low count should be tested again to see if the white cell count goes up after being here on Earth for a bit.

      Footnote: no where did I read that these tests were ongoing so the one who white cell count was "normal" may have regenerated or maybe it's something else. When someone says something like: "That's odd"... it merits more investigation.

      1. AdamT

        Re: Kinda makes sense...

        I think 'nauts get tested to some degree pretty much for the rest of their life. I recall Chris Hadfield mentioning something about that in one of his talks.

    3. Mr Han

      Re: Kinda makes sense...

      Just as drinking beer will kill the weaker brain cells first so that only the strongest cells survive, thus making you smarter by killing off stupidity..

    4. ratfox Silver badge

      Re: Kinda makes sense...

      Couldn't it also be that those who got sick more easily did not come back for another round?

  4. The Nazz Silver badge

    Take a lesson from Athletics?

    You know in good time who the chosen 'nauts are.

    Six months to launch, take some NK cells out of their body, grow them on in the lab, whilst the body naturally replenishes them.

    A day or two before lift off inject the NK cells back into the body. Packing them in.

    Double the benefit, they're healthier for the journey AND they get to the finish line, Mars, that much quicker.

    Oh, and pack plenty of ginseng tea for the journey.

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: Take a lesson from Athletics?

      This is a ludicrous idea. It's obvious what we do.

      Every couple of months we inject one astronaut with a different disease. Say the common cold. This gives a nice work-out for all their immune systems. We then pack them a box of hot honey and lemon drinks plus tissues or perhaps a small hoover to clip over the nose and hoover up the bogey to avoid it floating around the ISS... You know it makes sense.

  5. EmilPer.

    living in sterile quarters ...

    ... must do wonders for your immunity

  6. fizz

    Summing it up

    Like the writer Charles Stross wrote regarding the space travel problem, "Canned monkeys don't ship well".

    1. bombastic bob Silver badge

      Re: Summing it up

      Canned monkey as a space food - tastes like chicken?

  7. Steve K Silver badge

    Flaw in testing protocol?

    "So we were able to just split them in half to see if there was an effect, and there was. The 'rookies' had greater drops in NK-cell function compared to the veterans."

    "Unfortunately they are all dead due to splitting them in half. Next time we'll amend the protocol to experiment on the 2 groups separately", they added.

    1. Francis Boyle Silver badge

      On the plus side

      it makes absolutely certain that none of them have been replaced by shape-shifting extra-terrestrials which according to my research is the real danger of space travel.

  8. 0laf Silver badge

    I wonder what the actual cause of the change is?

    Low G, radiation, light cycles, lack of exposure to other environmental factors?

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      It could just be boredom. The immune system is all sad and lonely with nothing to do in a sealed can as far as humanly possible from 4-year-olds, aka cute plague carriers.

      Plus the stress of an environment that's never silent, where sleep patterns are disturbed and lack of gravity is messing with many of the body's other systems.

    2. Alister Silver badge

      As mentioned above, it may be the disturbance to circadian rhythms - sleep patterns, as the same impact has been noted in studies carried out on shift-workers.

    3. bombastic bob Silver badge

      Well, exposure to ionizing radiation is _known_ to have various effects on blood, and that's the most likely candidate. HOWEVER, if the effect of 'first time' stress is HIGHER than that of radiation, it would make an appropriate study VERY interesting... (and perhaps demand a series of shorter trips before the long one, to improve astronaut health).

      Ionizing radiation [as well as certain kinds of infections, poisonous substances, etc.] more easily kill cells that multiply rapidly. This is why radiation has been used to treat cancer, because cancer cells will die with somewhat lower exposure levels than regular cells. The villi in the intestines, certain kinds of connective tissue in skin, and immune cells are all candidates for radiation susceptibility. So typical symptoms of radiation exposure include "NVD" (Nausea, Vomiting, Diarrhea), skin edema [due to breakdown of connective tissues, fluid buildup in the skin), and blood chemistry changes.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Cause and effect

    Enquiring minds want to know:- Have they put a control group of space cadets in a hermetically sealed sterile environment here on earth for 90+ days to check whether space actually has anything to do with this?

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    In order to go into space you must be in perfect physical health, so you can adapt to maneuvering around a spaceship with your hands, not being able to sense which way is up or down, breathing through one tube and pooping through another.

    People with lifelong experience of maneuvering with their hands, who never could sense of up or down, who already regularly breathe or poop through tubes, those people need not apply.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Fuck that - sign us up !!!

    The good lady wife and I (49 and 52 respectively) have done our bit on this blue dot. Son is healthy, working. No other dependents. She has progressing MS, so fuck all to look forward to in Brexit Britain over the next 20 years.

    We've both agreed we'd be on the next flight up, if they'd have us.

    Happy to wear any logos or look towards sponsorship deals. Hell, I'd even plug that twatbadger Tim Martins Wetherspoons shite if it meant slipping the surly bonds of earth.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Fuck that - sign us up !!!

      She has progressing MS, so fuck all to look forward to in Brexit Britain over the next 20 years.

      Because her MS would be so much better if we remain in the EU? I'm not sure you've got that quite right. It's just possible you're conflating entirely seperate issues, no?

  12. Big_Boomer Bronze badge

    Cause and Effect

    Undoubtedly the genius scientists investigating this haven't thought about the fact that living in a sterile environment means that the body needs less HK cells, and therefore produces less HK cells? Reminds me of overly protective mothers who sterilise everything continuously and yet can't understand why their little darlings end up with every allergy under the sun. We humans are designed to live in a bacteria/virus infested miasma, so putting us in any kind of sterile environment is counter productive. That said, before man can live away from this planet for extended periods, we need to get better radiation shielding or else just accept the increase in mutations in ourselves and our biosphere.

    1. anonymous boring coward Silver badge

      Re: Cause and Effect

      I doubt a smelly ISS would be sterile. But at least it's a limited environment.

  13. Omgwtfbbqtime Silver badge

    "...just accept the increase in mutations in ourselves and our biosphere."

    You mean the sort of mutations that allowed us to crawl out of the oceans and bang the rocks together?

  14. EnviableOne Bronze badge

    Radiation effects methinks

    sounds like a similar effect to what is seem with radiotherapy patients.

    Just wondering if we could create an artifitial magnetic field arround our interstellar spacecraft to mitigate the radiation issues

    1. Caver_Dave

      Re: Radiation effects methinks

      It is being looked at and has been mentioned a couple of times on this site.

      See Dr. Ruth Bamford of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory

    2. bombastic bob Silver badge

      Re: Radiation effects methinks

      "Just wondering if we could create an artifitial magnetic field arround our interstellar spacecraft to mitigate the radiation issues"

      That would help against charged particles, but not neutrons nor gamma. For it to work against those, you'd need a lot of other particles trapped in there, too. That happens to be the case with the Van Allen belts, though.

      Neutrons are particularly bad in that they case things to _become_ radioactive, or change the atom into something else (even if temporarily, like Nitrogen 16 from Oxygen in water that is exposed to a high neutron flux, as in a nuclear reactor, which after a few seconds, turns back into Oxygen 16, but you can easily measure the additional radioactivity just from the decay of N-16 to O-16).

      High energy gamma radiation can disassociate chemical bonds, effectively 'cracking' them, or cause oddball recombinations of chemicals that would otherwise not form [this is, I believe, the mechanism by how radiation kills a living cell]. Anything that's considered "ionizing" will do this, more or less.

      The best way to shield against gamma radiation is mass. Gamma interacts with atoms of high mass by ionizing the electrons, 'exciting' them, and they either absorb it [heating] or spit out lower energy gammas [scattering]. Other particles like free electrons, protons, and alpha, will be shielded by relatively thin layers of material, so you won't need a magnetic field at all - just need a decent hull on a ship, or a suit made of some kind of thick material for those.

      Neutron shielding needs to scatter the neutrons and possibly absorb them. Materials that absorb neutrons are well known, boron and hafnium being two of them [used in nuclear reactors to control reactions, for example]. These materials deplete as they absorb neutrons, though, so they have finite life. And you might have to 'scatter' neutrons to bring the energy level to the right point to be absorbed. This means hydrogenous material to maximize the energy decrement per collision with a neutron.

      Anyway, the magnetic idea isn't bad when you consider the Van Allen belts, but it's the ions they trap that are doing the shielding, and not the actual magnetic field. Actually, though, if a nuclear rocket had water as a propellant, and you could keep it from freezing, the water would be really good radiation shielding from the sun [and the rocket engine itself] - just keep it oriented 'that way' while coasting. actually liquid H2 would work the same way more or less for neutrons, but you would need something a bit denser to help shield gamma.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    There are Leukaemia's that hit you only when over 40

    Some of those are pretty rare.

    So the premise that us oldies would survive is IMHO wrong.

    I got one of these (HCL) aged 54. This one is very slow growing (5-7 years but undetectable until year 4) and it totally fucked up my body for almost a year after I finished chemo.

    Good luck going to Mars if you have it growing inside your body.

  16. Adair

    I've always wondered...

    how much energy it would take to convert a spaceship into a giant magnet with sufficient power to divert enough of the incoming radiation to substitute for the Earth's own magnetic field? Presumably more than our current feeble non-nuclear technology will allow.

    1. AdamT

      Re: I've always wondered...

      I think I have read an article about this somewhere ( I will attempt to find it ) but pretty sure the answer was a lot - in a "1.21 GW? Great Scott!" kind of way. With, reference to a_mu's comment, it was "if you can lift a reactor big enough to provide it, you'd be better off just living inside the reactor shell - that'll shield you just fine" kind of size.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: I've always wondered...

        A superconducting magnet as found in MRI machines do not require power to run, the supercurrent will run as long as the magnet's coil remains cold.

        A magnetic field will deflect alpha and beta particles but not X-rays, gamma radiation and neutron flux. And I am not sure all experiments on board will take well to a strong magnetic field.

    2. Mage Silver badge

      Re: I've always wondered...

      Double hull and water in between. Water is reasonable shielding for cosmic radiation (worse if solar wind low). Unfortunately a solar flare is really bad news.

  17. a_mu


    wonder, how big a reactor / magnetic field would they need to shield themselves ?

    1. bombastic bob Silver badge

      Re: magnetics

      well, it kinda works like this:

      For high energy gamma, 1 inch of lead or 2 inches of steel is an approximat "tenth thickness"; that is, with that much material between you and a source of radiation, on the shielded side the dose rate is about 1/10 of what it is on the unshielded side. For water, it's 3 feet if I remember correctly. I think concrete and dirt is 1 foot.

      For neutrons the numbers change. Lead and steel don't do diddly squat for neutrons, and water and plastic have a tenth thickness of around 1 foot. If you include neutron absorbing material you can reduce it significantly, though - however, the shielding would deplete over time and become less effective the more it's exposed to neutron flux.

      The idea of having a double-hull with water in between isn't bad. Plastic or oil might actually work better, though [but cost more]. I guess a returning space ship could deliver its extra shield water to a space station, to be used for 'whatever'. But the extra mass would be a heavy penalty in fuel. And now you could probably calculate how thick it would all need to be...

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Waste of time

    The rich will never let the common man go into space.

    It's a waste of money. Especially as we have so many problems on earth.

  19. Johnny Canuck

    I'll just leave this here...

  20. Marketing Hack Silver badge

    Space sucks!!

    Growing up, I was promised rayon shirts, adventure, heroics and attractive green-skinned space vixens. Now I find out that what I really have to look forward to is leukemia and shingles??

    This is so unfair. I'm writing the Apollo program to ask for a refund.

  21. JimmyPage Silver badge

    Turn an asteroid into a craft ?

    Pondering idly on this yesternight, and it occurred to me that mounting your BFO rockets on an asteroid, and building the cabin space at the front would allow you to go to Mars protected by hundreds of metres of rock. Cleverly (FSVO of "clever") avoiding the cost of having to haul up the shielding from Earth.

    1. A-nonCoward

      Re: Turn an asteroid into a craft ?

      The wife used to be a total NASA enthusiast.

      I took her to Houston for her birthday, and, devil hands know no rest, I idly shared with her the nonsense about the expense (16,000 employees?) when anybody who knew any "Science" already was aware quite a while back that a trip to Mars was not practical, ever, due to the simple concept of the cost of lugging up enough shielding, thereabouts twice the amount of everything that has been sent to space to date. (My own fav is water - useful by itself, but why not an asteroid, if we are going for silly - hundreds of meters of rock, d'you know how much beyond calculable it would cost to power that mass into a controllable orbit? Still, cheaper than an artificial magnetosphere)

      Wife wasn't pleased to have her NASA views messed up, as she got to research, and, alas, find out that this time hubby was right, even though it was obvious that these basic principles and facts were far from being published among "official" mainline "Mars Mission" websites. Giving her a vacuum as a birthday gift might have been better (a recent El Reg comment thread). The AirBNB was a disaster also, no NASA fault, that.

      Of course, the pearl of the visit was watching that Russian (renter of NASA facilities?) riding with a young girl passenger one of those zillion-dollar all-wheel-control vehicles at top speed in a parking lot. How much fun. How much Science. NASA. Yay!

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Surely if the number of NK cells go down, they are becoming SK cells and defecting...

  23. A-nonCoward

    the obligatory Global Warming angle

    The researchers are unsure why old-timers – one participant had spent a whopping 340 days in space – had stronger immune systems compared to first-timers in space.

    if I get this right, "something" up there is different, worse now than it used to be in the past. Hmmm. Global warming increasing due to some space something?

  24. tiggity Silver badge

    Immune system least of your worries

    Lets face it, chances of first manned trip to Mars being a successful return trip are probably not that great.

    Would be sensible to assume its likely a one way trip (if you even get there in one piece) and choose volunteer crew accordingly.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      Do you mean they should be army volunteers, ie "You, you and you" ?

      It is an opportunity to get shot of those who annoy us most, so let's get creative here people!

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