Lessons learned in space help us live better on Earth

A new space age is dawning, and in this new era, cooperation between countries will be essential, Dr Joan Vernikos, former director of the Life Sciences Division of NASA, told Kathimerini. Vernikos is in Thessaloniki to participate in the Second International Conference of the Greek Aerospace and Space Research Association. Born in Alexandria to a Sifniote family, Vernikos studied in England and has worked at NASA since 1962. Her studies have included research into the effects of zero gravity on humans. She was at NASA during the moon landing, the tragedies of the Challenger and the Colombia, the Viking’s landing on Mars, and is certain that «this century, man will set foot on the red planet.» How did you come to be at NASA? I was studying stress. And since the human body doesn’t react well to stress in zero gravity, I was asked to study the subject at NASA. We observed that this shortcoming was very significant for astronauts. What effect do other factors apart from gravity have? How does food affect astronauts? It’s an interesting aspect. Correct nutrition is essential. No sugar, for example, because it cannot be absorbed. We’ve learnt a lot from space about diabetes. Substances and smells change. Astronauts’ food needs stronger flavors and aromas. What seems salty on Earth, for instance, tastes right in space. Did you participate in experiments connected with the moon landings? We didn’t know as much then about zero gravity. But now we have a new perception of space travel. Lots of experiments and lots of knowledge are vital for new long-term missions like this one to Mars, where we have to solve the great problem of zero gravity that astronauts will experience for 14 months. How do you see the space age? It’s difficult. It impels us to international cooperation on space missions. Besides, there isn’t enough money. It was the Cold War that propelled the space race. Now the Russians can’t participate but the Chinese are emerging. Discoveries Vernikos’s discoveries are associated with the most important, unexpected message to Earth from space. And that, as she explains in her book, shortly to be published in Greece (with a prologue by astronaut John Glenn, who went into space for the second time at the age of 77), reveals the secret of «how we can retain the liveliness of youth into old age.» Scientists have observed that zero gravity acts on the body in such a way that after each space trip, says Vernikos, «these young and superbly trained» astronauts have weaker bones and muscles, low blood pressure, and disrupted coordination and balance. «In general,» says Vernikos, «they feel older than they are, and it takes quite some time for them to regain their previous physical condition.» This applied to all 400 astronauts who have taken part in space missions and was confirmed by Glenn’s trip and additional research on healthy individuals and people in homes for the aged. «The answer is to be found in gravity – the less we use its power, the more we prefer inertia. The less we move, the more our bones and muscles weaken and our sense of balance suffers, just as if we were in space. «How old we are at 60, 70 or more depends on what we did in childhood, what habits we acquired. «If we listen to our bodies, and learn to use gravity again by adopting a lifestyle that makes use of knowledge drawn from experiments in space (such as the right exercises and dietary changes), it will help us remain in good physical condition and not need the help of others for the rest of our lives,» explains Vernikos.