Illness during spaceflight

What happens if there is a major injury on a spaceflight? I know that Astronauts/Cosmonauts are trained to do first aid and one crewman has further training.

I presume there is a procedure to decide what can be handled in space and what they need to send down? Who decides? Mission Control? Commander?

On Apollo 15, James Irwins heart issues were not communicated to the Commander, David Scott, which pissed him off no end. Irwin did a major deep space spacewalk after the issues arose, which Scott said he would have disallowed had he known. In that case they could not have come down faster anyway.

What about on the Mir/ISS or earlier in Salyut or Skylab? On the later I presume it means end of mission, but on MIR and ISS? If on ISS someone feels ill and has to go down, does that mean his/her expedition colleagues also have to go down?

First of all, Mir was deorbited in 2001. The only space stations in orbit currently are the International Space Station and the Tiangong-1 (Chinese space station).

During launch and significant mission activities there is a ‘flight surgeon’ (often not actually a surgeon) is on console monitoring medical telemetry and will assess conditions of the astronauts, and can advise on treatments. The station itself is stocked with basic medical supplies including antibiotics and first aid supplies, but is obviously not equipped to support invasive surgery or other advanced treatments. In the case of a major illness or trauma, it would depend on the nature of the injury. If it was not treatable in situ, it would probably require the return of the entire crew as there is often only one return Soyuz capsule on station between flights.


Thanks as always. :slight_smile: The reason I selected MIR is not because I did not know that it had been deorbited, but because it (unlike Skylab and the Salyuts) spent quite a lot of time being continuously inhabited. In that case a return of a crew early could screw up rotations as set.

Who would make the final decision? The Commander or Mission Control? I lean towards the later.

The mission commander has more insight into the conditions and issues (especially in a case where reentry loads may pose more threat than treatement in situ) and will have a voice in the decision, but ultimately, mission control gives direction.

In the case of a longer term mission–such as a crewed interplanetary mission or one to an asteroid–the issue of treating severe or chronic illness is a significant one, especially if it places a burden on resources or personnnel, and the topic of euthenasia–as distasteful and contraversial as it may be–should be objectively discussed prior to the mission. On a trajectory to, say, Mars, there would be no free trajectory return as there was in Apollo XIII, and there is no way a reasonably scoped mission can cope with more than routine medical issues and moderate trauma.


Thanks! ANy idea why David Scott was not told about Irwin’s condition on Apollo XV? Especially as Irwin had to participate in an EVA afterwards? While not an inter planetary mission, it was one outside LEO.

My brother-in-law is a flight surgeon for NASA.

I’ve sent him an email asking for the parameters of what he can do if an astronaut gets sick in orbit. I’ll share what I hear back when I can.

Alas, he’s tied up and unlikely to get back to me any time soon with details. Sorry to be a tease.

Not really relevant to current flights, but future ones may be informed by this experiment I recalled from 2006 where surgeons experimentally performed on a volunteer. Apparently the operation was enabled by magnets and a special operating “theatre” designed by (for reasons I’d really like to know) a French elevator manufacturer. :confused:

If that’s ThyssenKrupp, they make a lot of high tech stuff - including submarines.

BTW, how did it come about that Irwins health problems weren’t discovered before the flight, given the insanely elaborate selection process for prospective astronauts?

True. Especially since a slight murmur of the heart kept Deke Slayton grounded for eons. From what I have read, David Scott and others astronaut felt that the cause of his health problems was the moonwalk. Officially it was a lack of potassium

Thank you for those links! There was a lot of overlap, but I’m glad I read all three. An amazing project.

This is a great example of carefully-planned progress. First a tiny procedure on a rat’s tail, and then a well-rehearsed non-emergency procedure on a human who is already used to extreme stuff. Bravo to all involved!

I have always thought that a good case of projectile vomiting in space would be a decent illustration of Newton’s third law — and a real hassle to clean up.

Vomiting in space is not unheard of, due to space sickness (usually when they’re newly arrived in space)

What I want to know, is how often do astronauts get infectious diseases in space? It seems to me, that with just 6 people, there’s just nowhere for a disease to come from. Now granted, when a new crew gets sent up, someone could have something (although I would think they’re usually checked pretty carefully before-hand). In that case, I would suppose that everyone who’s going to get sick will get sick, they’ll clear up in a weak, and then it will be over with. Is it common for a cold to get passed around when the new crew gets up there? How often does someone get a cold during the middle of a mission? I would have guessed “never”, but I don’t really know.