New NASA sleeping bags could prevent eyeball ‘crushing’ on the International Space Station

Becoming an astronaut requires perfect 20/20 vision, but unfortunately, the effects of space can cause astronauts to return to Earth with their degraded eyesight. Now, researchers from UT Southwestern Medical Center have developed a sleeping bag that can prevent or reduce these problems by effectively absorbing fluid from astronauts’ heads.

More than half of NASA astronauts who have been to the International Space Station (ISS) for more than six months develop vision problems of varying degrees. In one case, astronaut John Phillips returned from a six-month stint around the International Space Station in 2005 with his eyesight dropping from 20/20 to 20/100, BBC mentioned.

For multi-year trips to Mars, for example, this could become a problem. Lead researcher Dr. Benjamin Levine told BBC.

Utah Southwestern / NASA

Fluid tends to accumulate in the head when you sleep, but on the floor, gravity pulls it down the body when you get up. However, in the low gravity of space, more than half a gallon of fluid collects in the head. This in turn puts pressure on the eyeball, causing flattening that can lead to visual impairment — a disorder called spaceflight-associated neurogenic eye syndrome, or SANS. (Dr. Levine discovered SANS by flying cancer patients on flights without equivalent gravity. They still had ports in their heads for chemotherapy, which gave the researchers an access point to measure the pressure inside their brains.)

To combat SANS, researchers teamed up with outdoor equipment maker REI to develop a sleeping bag that fits at the waist and contours to the lower body. Then a vacuum cleaner-like suction device is activated which pulls the fluid towards the feet and prevents it from accumulating in the head.

About 12 people volunteered to test the technology, and the results were positive. Some questions must be answered before NASA brings the technology aboard the International Space Station, including the optimal amount of time astronauts should spend in a sleeping bag each day. They also need to determine if each astronaut should use one, or only those at risk of developing a SANS.

However, Dr. Levine hopes that SANS will not be a problem by the time NASA is ready to go to Mars. “This is perhaps one of the most mission-critical medical issues that have been discovered in the past decade for the space program,” he said in a statement.

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