Homo Cosmicus: Vestibular Implants

EDIT: David Birchler mentioned in the comments that an implant is not required. The technology is called galvanic vestibular stimulation and it can stimulate the sensation of pitch, roll, and yaw. Since surgery is not required, it sounds like this really IS doable as a countermeasure for dizziness on landing (perhaps combined with training) and the sensation of coriolis in a short arm centrifuge. In fact, for the former, it looks like this is already being tested as a training tool for astronauts: http://nsbri.org/researches/galvanic-vestibular-stimulation-augmented-training-for-exploration-class-missions/
and here, it shows that GVS training can allow quicker adaption to different vestibular environments: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4458607/
Here’s a company which is developing the tech (along with Mayo Clinic) synced to Virtual Reality: VMocion

For a few years, now, I’ve been convinced that one of the best ways of making human spaceflight affordable and even competitive with robotic spaceflight in some areas is by engineering as close to the human as possible.

For instance, to solve radiation issues, you could shield the entire spacecraft. But this requires a lot of mass. Mass-wise, better is to shield just the habitable areas. Better still is to focus on areas the crew spends the most time in, like the sleeping quarters. Better still (though weird and awkward) might be a garment with radiation shielding. And yet we can do better still: radiation countermeasures in drug form, which protects at the cellular level. Drugs like Amifostine. (But we need better ones.) Or even closer, the nuclear (as in, cell nucleus) level: You could propose either genetically modifying people themselves to produce radioprotectants (or perhaps engineering our microbiome to produce radioprotectants without requiring engineering of actual humans). In each case, the closer to the human you engineer, the lower the mass and ultimately the cheaper it is (at scale).

Another example of this would be microgravity. There have been drugs that have been used to help maintain bone density, such as those used for osteoporosis, particularly Bisphosphonates, which have already been tried on ISS (although there are more powerful drugs available which haven’t been tried, such as Forteo). But exercise seems largely sufficient for the usual durations. And on a larger scale, you could try internal short-arm centrifuges. And on a larger scale, tethers for artificial gravity. But at each point, the mass overhead becomes greater. So I prefer the drug-based countermeasures if possible.

Another effect is a sense of dizziness after astronauts return from long stints in microgravity. The dizziness doesn’t last too long, but it’s feared to prevent rapid escape from the vehicle after landing (say, on Mars) if there’s a problem. I think this is a corner-case-of-a-corner-case, i.e. you have to have a survivable landing but still have to have a reason to immediately exit the vehicle AND be close enough to other help while also not being too injured too move AND you have to be so dizzy that you can’t exit the vehicle.

But let’s say that’s the only showstopper to microgravity. (and it’s not a showstopper, but let’s say it is) Another possibility is vestibular implants. Some people actually have damage to their vestibular system from disease or injury, and so they can be given an artificial vestibular implant, using external MEMS gyros attached to their head, to restore a sense of balance:

First Successful Installations of Vestibular Implants in Humans

But because the signal is now synthesized, you can now modify it. You can impose the feeling of gravity on an astronaut in microgravity, prepping the astronaut for landing. Or perhaps smoothing out the strong Coriolis effect from short-arm centrifuges. You should be able to reduce the dizziness an astronaut feels after returning to gravity.

Also, it’d allow for some crazily-immersive VR.

Now, I personally think that the brain is already sophisticated enough that we can actually train ourselves to tolerate the Coriolis forces (and this is borne out of a study from MIT), and probably also learn how to combat the dizziness that is felt upon landing (perhaps by regularly spinning around just in the air while in microgravity). So I don’t think this is purely necessary. But I do think that long-term, we need to start thinking in this direction in order to make mass human spaceflight more feasible. Human spaceflight seems intrinsically expensive because of all the overhead required for humans in space versus robots. But we can engineer ourselves, much like we developed clothing to enable living in colder climates.

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19 Responses to Homo Cosmicus: Vestibular Implants

  1. ken anthony says:

    While many solutions may fail, I like the attitude that potential problems probably have solutions even if only partial. Too many people seem to think everything is a showstopper even when cases exist that prove they are not.

    Outside of a very narrow temperature band found only in parts of the earth and only for a season the earth will kill you from exposure. Do we normally worry or even think about that? No, we wear suitable clothes.

  2. Brock says:

    It’s a good point.

    And there’s a great spinoff. The damage to your bones and muscles from microgravity is really just an accelerated degeneration from lack of exercise. If you can find a way to trigger the same cascade of reactions you get from lifting weights, and put it in a pill, that’ll be useful (and a blockbuster seller) back here on Earth too!

  3. gbaikie says:

    If we lived on Mercury, getting to Mars would be easier.
    A simple hohmann transfer from Earth to Mars is about 8 months, and same from Mercury to Mars is about 6 month.
    With hohmann + patch conic Earth to Mars is about 7 months, and same Mercury to Mars would about 5 months.

    Using ion engines, one send a spacecraft to about Mercury distance from the Sun, and have do a hohmann + patched to Mars which also passes near earth.
    Have crew at high earth and intercept the trajectory and dock with ion spacecraft. And this should allow crew to get to Mars from Earth in about 3 months or less.
    The spacecraft from earth’s high orbit with crew should chemical rockets. And ion spacecraft should have as a payload a Mars to Earth return spacecraft which should be chemical rockets [storable chemical]. Mars high orbit to Earth high orbit.

    And not mentioning spacecraft which gets crew from Earth surface to Earth high orbit, nor spacecrafts which get from High Mars orbit to Mars surface, nor spacecrafts which get from Mars surface back to high Mars orbit.

    The chemical rockets at either earth or Mars high orbit, drop down to low orbit distance and make burn close to planets, to insert into planetary trajectories therefore use Oberth Effect and will do non- hohmann trajectories [alter vector relative to planet’s orbital path- will be similar to powered gravity assist- gravity assists generally speaking, alter vector relative to planet’s orbital path in which they cross].

    So this lessens micro-gravity and radiation effects by getting crew faster to Mars. And faster uses less duration life support mass needed
    And it seems that ion engines should work pretty good in terms of doing patched conic
    trajectory adjustment. And be better electrical if going closer to the Sun near Mercury orbit. One not going to planet Mercury with it’s 7 degree solar plane inclination, just around Mercury distance from Sun, and doing the hohmann to Mars from Mercury [without a planet] should work better with ion vs chemical- a long period of thrust isn’t penalized- say 3 km/sec delta-v with ion is about same as 3 km/sec of delta-v with chemical.

  4. ken anthony says:

    Going closer to the sun to avoid radiation? I believe you might want to rethink that; also consider that trading a shorter time at higher radiation levels is exactly the opposite of what you want to do. The same amount of radiation over a shorter period does more damage, not less.

  5. gbaikie says:

    “Going closer to the sun to avoid radiation? I believe you might want to rethink that; also consider that trading a shorter time at higher radiation levels is exactly the opposite of what you want to do. The same amount of radiation over a shorter period does more damage, not less.”

    I meant GCR.
    Any kind solar radiation would be more intense:

    —The space radiation environment consists of magnetically trapped charged particles (around the planets with a significant magnetic field), solar energetic particles, and galactic cosmic rays (GCR).
    The penetrating particles pose the main problems to spacecraft, including upsets to electronics, payload interference, damage to electronics and deep dielectric charging.
    For the Mercury mission, the main threat consists primarily of solar energetic particles.

    Solar protons are products of solar events, with energies in excess of several hundred MeV and peak fluxes in excess of 10^6 protons cm-2 s-1 for protons with energies greater than 10 MeV. These events, though, are relatively rare, occurring primarily during periods of several years around solar maximum.

    Memories: SEE during solar proton events are about a factor of 10 higher than for missions at 1AU, therefore EDAC (error detection and correction) or other methods to reduce the SEU rate are necessary.
    It is expected that the SEE rate from galactic cosmic rays will be less than at 1 AU due to the attenuation of the GCR flux by the solar wind.—
    http://www.sciops.esa.int/SB-general/Projects/BepiColombo-OLD/BepiColomboSTRep/chapter4fin.pdf

    Likewise I expect GCR to be less at Mercury as compared to Mars or Earth- but I don’t have numbers on it. But rather than solar wind I was thinking of magnetic field of the Sun. But a solar flare event at mercury distance would be more intense.
    In terms of crew radiation it would be from GCR and solar events.
    When sun at max one has more solar events and less GCR. And unshielded or insufficient shielding can lethal in terms of certain solar events. Though if shielded solar events can culminate in terms of mission radiation dose, but generally when talking about mission levels of lifetime radiation in terms of Mars mission it is mostly about GCR radiation.

  6. Michael Hutson says:

    One possible adaptation to space would be finding a way to turn off the body’s heat production. In space we are 100% dependent anyway on artificial temperature control, and our body heat is wasted calories and an added burden to the cooling systems. Find drugs that will temporarily make people ectothermic and keep the cabin temperature at ~98 Fahrenheit. Save on food and oxygen.

    As for bone and muscle loss, animals and people with a mutated gene for myostatin production become super muscular. Duplicate that by either drugs or engineering and muscle loss is much less.

  7. Peterh says:

    “If we lived on Mercury, getting to Mars would be easier.
    A simple hohmann transfer from Earth to Mars is about 8 months, and same from Mercury to Mars is about 6 month.
    With hohmann + patch conic Earth to Mars is about 7 months, and same Mercury to Mars would about 5 months.”

    Comparing transfer times without accounting for delta-V is dealing with only half the picture. How fast is the Earth to Mars transfer if we applied the same delta-V as the Mercury-Mars cases?

  8. gbaikie says:

    “Comparing transfer times without accounting for delta-V is dealing with only half the picture. How fast is the Earth to Mars transfer if we applied the same delta-V as the Mercury-Mars cases?”
    Well, leaving Mercury is far, far easier than leaving Earth. And like Mars, Mercury has very little gravity loss. Leaving earth costs about + 1 km/sec of gravity loss, Mercury or Mars is somewhere around .1 km/sec. Since Mercury is vacuum the gravity loss could be closer to zero.
    But I suppose one talking about from orbit or minimum to escape trajectory.
    So could be talking about comparison between Earth and Mercury from a 200 km orbit or high orbit, like from L-2 of Earth compared to L-2 of Mercury.

    In terms of from minimum escape trajectory, major aspect about Mercury is it’s a 7 degree off solar plane, and to get somewhere near Earth and Mars, one might go to Venus first to alter this angle. So one do gravity assist of Venus and gain velocity and alter the angle- so doing that it could b less delta-v than 8 month Earth to Mars.
    Or one go directly to Mars and use Mars gravity to cancel it, therefore one arriving at Mars going slower than Mars orbital speed as compared to Earth to Mars and takes about 1 or 2 km/sec more to get there.
    So a bit more or less [via Venus] delta-v as compared to Earth to Mars at 8 months vs 6 month from Mercury. With patched and 5 vs 7, it seems Mercury would cost less- and hit mars atmosphere slower.

  9. DC says:

    For radiation protection, surround the crew cabin with water and propellant tanks. A trip to Mars could have two landers, for redundancy. Connect them with a long rigid solar panel array structural member. Then spin the structure for artificial gravity.

    Anyone born on Mars will never return to Earth.

  10. David Birchler says:

    Interesting, but there is now work on developing a wearable galvanic system to create the sensation of motion for VR that may be easier to implement for short term use like getting acquainted with the Coriolis forces:

    http://www.vmocion.com/index.html

  11. Chris Stelter says:

    David, that’s brilliant!

    So this idea seems WAY more workable than I originally thought, since no surgery is required.

  12. gbaikie says:

    –Comparing transfer times without accounting for delta-V is dealing with only half the picture. How fast is the Earth to Mars transfer if we applied the same delta-V as the Mercury-Mars cases?–

    I think didn’t answered that question well. To start I would not suggest sending crew to Mercury to then send crew from Mercury to Mars. Rather I said send spacecraft with ion rockets to Mercury which had no crew on that trip to Mercury, and crew dock with this ship, as it crossed Earth orbit. So that is similar to a Mars Cycler. Crew could not do a hohmann transfer to dock with this “Cycler” near Earth. Or days from leaving Earth, crew would be docked cycler and less than 3 months would arrive at Mars. That non hohmann to reach cycler would reach Mars in 3 months without using
    the cycler. Or to dock with it, it has to be on same trajectory- though the cycler could do the rocket burn part of patched conic. Or if crewed spacecraft had the rocket power to do the patched conic, than it could get to Mars within 3 months. and there is no other way to get to Mars in 3 months doing hohmann- it has to be a non hohmann transfer. Or if used ion, nuclear or starship Enterprise, it could not do hohmann to Mars in 3 months- or hohmann from Earth to Mars takes about 8 months.
    But your question could be comparing hohmann + patched conic earth to Mars in about 6 months compared to Mercury to Mars hohmann in about 6 month.
    That’s interesting question, but it would be sending crew to Mercury with hohmann from Earth arriving in 105 days, then adding 6 months hohmann to get to Mars. Or total crew trip time of 8 1/2 month- and simple hohmann from Earth to Mars takes about 8 1/2 month. But to answer that question it would cost about 6 to 8 km/sec more delta-v, going via Mercury.
    The advantage of “cycler” is such a long way 8 1/2 months [or the 3 months with crew docking at Earth distance] is the ion rocket is more efficient.
    So if don’t like docking at earth distance and want to send crew via Mercury to Mars and take about same time as hohmann or hohmann patched conic [8 or 6 months] it would require a lot more delta-v, but since using ion rockets it could about same mass of rocket fuel used. Though leaving Earth LEO with ion engine could a big problem if crewed. If both started from high earth orbit, it doesn’t require much delta-v to get to Mars with hohmann transfer [so not much mass of chemical rocket fuel- but if bringing a lot of mass to Mars the low amount of delta-v to get to mars could use a lot of chemical rocket fuel- hence a possibility that ion rocket starting from high Earth orbit might use around the same amount of total mass- but certainly needs more delta-v].

  13. DougSpace says:

    The following video seems to indicate that people who have been in zero gee long enough apparently has their brains adapt such that they ignore info from their cochlea thereby might avoid dizziness due to the Coriolis effect.

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=GPnLShiJ-t4

  14. Paul451 says:

    Doug,
    That’s an awesome video. Even more extreme than the classic video of Pete Conrad running around Skylab: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S_p7LiyOUx0

    (How the hell did we evolve that trick?)

    Chris,
    “But exercise seems largely sufficient for the usual durations.”

    It’s not. The current rule of thumb for recovery is 1-3 day of rehab for every day of micro-gravity. That’s the damage remaining after the current regime of multiple hours exercise per day, plus anti-osteoporosis drugs, while on ISS.

    From what I’ve been hearing lately from space-medicine people, research seems to be moving in the opposite direction. The more we know, the worse the problem seems. People now seriously talk about permanent health issues from prolonged micro-g exposure.

    “Another effect is a sense of dizziness after astronauts return from long stints in microgravity. The dizziness doesn’t last too long, but it’s feared to prevent rapid escape from the vehicle after landing (say, on Mars) if there’s a problem.”

    This immediate dizziness is due to orthostatic hypotension (or orthostatic intolerance), not the vestibular system. Caused both by a reduction in blood fluid volume and a reduction in the heart muscle strength (again, that’s in spite of upwards of 2hrs exercise per day on ISS). For some astronauts, it’s severe enough to cause blackouts, and the extreme version (hypovolemic shock) can cause permanent tissue (or brain) damage and even be fatal.

    So, not something you can cure by zapping the middle-ear. G-suits used by fighter-pilots to prevent blackouts might help, squeezing the lower body to push blood into the upper body.

    Ken,
    “Too many people seem to think everything is a showstopper even when cases exist that prove they are not.”

    IMO, there’s a greater tendency for advocates to arm-wave away major issues as “solvable”, or worse “solved” when they aren’t. This leads to bad program design decisions, costly overruns, and dangerous practices becoming the norm.

  15. Chris Stelter says:

    ““But exercise seems largely sufficient for the usual durations.”

    It’s not. The current rule of thumb for recovery is 1-3 day of rehab for every day of micro-gravity. That’s the damage remaining after the current regime of multiple hours exercise per day, plus anti-osteoporosis drugs, while on ISS.”

    Disagree. What we do for our astronauts when they get back is not what’s strictly necessary for function. I’m talking about what’s sufficient for typical functioning on Mars, not what our current rules for treating astronauts are. Statements like “it’s not” are subjective, not objective.

    Additionally, I’m okay with the fact that space travel will probably permanently alter our skeletons. I understand that this is not necessarily acceptable to everyone.

    But this is a disagreement of what is acceptable or not. Ultimately, this is subjective and not objective.

    The more we study the problem, the more information we will find. The more people will be invested in studying the problem more. Reality is fractally complex, and no doubt more risks will be unearthed. This is not the same as saying things cannot be done.

    “This immediate dizziness is due to orthostatic hypotension (or orthostatic intolerance), not the vestibular system. ”
    I was only restating what Tim Peake said in the video you yourself referenced: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GPnLShiJ-t4
    Tim Peake: “…something that happens when astronauts first come into space is that they usually feel pretty rough for about the first 24 horus. A mixture of dizziness and becoming disorientated and sometimes nausea as well. And I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that the vestibular system is a little bit messed up. All the fluid in the inner ear is in microgravity so it’s just floating and so the brain is getting these mixed signals from the ear versus the eyes…”

    …so according to Tim Peake, it indeed is at least partly a phenomenon of the vestibular system, and thus something that could, in principle, be counter-acted by GVS.

    Are you saying Tim Peake is wrong?

    “IMO, there’s a greater tendency for advocates to arm-wave away major issues as “solvable”, or worse “solved” when they aren’t. This leads to bad program design decisions, costly overruns, and dangerous practices becoming the norm.”

    It seems like a pretty strong claim to say major issues aren’t solvable.

    And yes, human spaceflight (especially when we’re talking of a long-duration trip to Mars) will have a level of irreducible risk. It is an intrinsically dangerous practice. That’s something we were willing to accept in the infancy of our space program, and if we ever go to Mars, we will have to accept it once more.

    This isn’t about objective facts, this is almost entirely about risk tolerance and how we treat risk.

    In my personal view, risks by themselves are meaningless. I think we must compare the risks to other risks which we accept as fairly normal in society but are still nonetheless non-negligible, such as the risks in commuting by car, of driving a motorcycle, of smoking, of bearing children, of being a soldier, of sunbathing, of personal gun ownership, of pool ownership, of general aviation, of scuba diving, etc. And we must also have realistic comparisons between different portions of the flight. For instance, it doesn’t make sense to double the IMLEO in order to make a slight reduction in the risk of something which is, overall, already much less than the irreducible risk of launch to orbit, entry, reentry, or ascent.

    Long-term, we should address every single one of the risks that are discovered. That is essential to allowing mass space colonization. But in the meantime, we shouldn’t let small risks (even if they are irreducible) from completely preventing all progress. That will just mean astronauts die during their commute or of old age on Earth without ever going anywhere instead of possibly on Mars. Technicians will die rebuilding some launch tower.

    Wasting thousands of lifetimes on space travel (and several lives due to industrial/workplace accidents at NASA) and getting nowhere because we’re so concerned over relatively small (but irreducible) risks to astronauts is not, in my mind, a good trade.

  16. Paul451 says:

    Chris,

    C’mon, don’t be that guy.

    This is what you said, and what I was responding to: “Another effect is a sense of dizziness after astronauts return from long stints in microgravity.”

    And this is what Tim Peake said in the video Doug linked to: “something that happens when astronauts first come into space

    Don’t pretend they are the same, and don’t pretend I was responding to the latter. It’s a very sleazy way to try to “win” an argument.

  17. gbaikie says:

    Well, that interesting issue, when landing on Mars surface after months of micro gravity, are the effects very similar to when returning to Earth surface after months of micro gravity.

  18. Chris Stelter says:

    Paul:
    I’m sorry. You’re right that we were referring to on-landing and that Tim Peake was referring to first coming into space.

    HOWEVER: “This immediate dizziness is due to orthostatic hypotension (or orthostatic intolerance), not the vestibular system.”
    –This statement does NOT appear to be true according to my research. You state it unsourced as if it’s a fact, yet the peer-reviewed research on GVS states that:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4458607/
    “Pilots [while landing] must reorder sensory input such that vision is weighted more heavily than vestibular input”… this is a neurovestibular problem, not just due to moving fluids.

    Also, veteran astronauts do not have a similar problem.

    It’s important to keep in mind that even if it WERE due to fluids redestributing themselves (a claim I have NOT seen validated), the “dizziness” sensation /is/ a neurovestibular response regardless, and so modifying the neurovestibular response electrically could, in principle, still apply.

    I’m not trying to “be that guy” and dishonestly cast your argument in a false light. It was an honest misreading of your post.

  19. Paul451 says:

    Chris,
    “It’s important to keep in mind that even if it WERE due to fluids redestributing themselves (a claim I have NOT seen validated)”

    Seriously? You’re not aware of this? Astronauts arrive in space, their blood pools in their upper bodies because of the lack of gravity. Their faces are puffy, their legs are spindly (called “moon face and chicken legs” in the trade) and they experience blocked noses and need to urinate a lot. Over time they adapt by reducing blood volume (hence the need to urinate). When they return, they have the opposite effect, blood pools in their lower body and they experience a drop in blood pressure in the upper body. In addition, their blood vessels don’t constrict properly and their heart atrophies, causing a longer term problem. They usually adapt to the dehydration and vessel constriction within a week, but the heart weakness can cause issues for much longer. According to talks I’ve heard from space-medicine researchers, recovery is 1-3 days per day of micro-g exposure. The process is essentially the same as physiotherapy for recovering patients who’ve been confined to bed for months: for the same reasons.

    And remember, astronauts are already selected during training for their resistance to orthostatic stress. And while in space they do a couple of solid hours of exercise per day. Yet more than 60% of astronauts will not be able to stand more than 10 minutes at a time without passing out or falling over (syncope and presyncope) for several days after a long duration mission. And even after short-duration (Shuttle) missions, around 20% of astronauts are unable to complete the 10-minute-stand test.

    For example: https://lcp.mit.edu/pdf/Heldt05a.pdf
    http://stroke.ahajournals.org/content/42/7/1844.full.pdf

    Most cites will be related to research covering specific sub-theories about orthostatic intolerance, not about the OI itself.
    For example:
    http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2012-10/foas-wae102512.php
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2290008/
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2290017/
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8828642
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2290013/
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12609000
    etc, which explore the theory that blood vessels in the lower body “forget” how to constrict during micro-g exposure.

    But if you really haven’t heard of this at all, just start with: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Effect_of_spaceflight_on_the_human_body#Fluid_redistribution
    or google “astronaut orthostatic intolerance” or “astronaut orthostatic hypotension” or “astronaut syncope”.

    “even if it WERE due to fluids redestributing themselves […] the “dizziness” sensation /is/ a neurovestibular response regardless, and so modifying the neurovestibular response electrically could, in principle, still apply.”

    The dizziness is due to blood loss to the brain, hence oxygen deprivation. It has nothing to do with the vestibular system. And because orthostatic hypotension is potentially dangerous, even if you could electronically fool the astronaut into not noticing it, that would not be a good thing.

    The only potential treatment is one which targets the actual cause. For example, during the Shuttle program, NASA experimented with a drug called Midodrine which causes the blood vessels to constrict, raising the blood pressure, partly countering the effect. Not sure if that’s now standard practice. In addition, astronauts drank saline fluid before re-entry, and Shuttle pilots wore g-suits.

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