Apparently, squashed eyeballs are a pretty serious problem in the space-going world. Spend enough time in zero-gravity, and the fluids in your body all just gather in your skull and put a lot of pressure on your peepers. Thankfully, there’s a new sleeping bag that’ll suck all those head juices back down to the rest of your body where they belong, the BBC reports. Congratulations, astronauts!
I didn’t realize that squashed eyeballs were such a serious problem, but apparently it’s one of the riskiest medical problems that can affect astronauts, and the BBC reports that NASA documented vision issues in more than half of the astronauts that have had a six-month stay on the International Space Station — with the Washington Post bumping that number up to 80 percent of astronauts.
In 2005, for example, astronaut John Phillips left Earth with 20/20 vision and came back six months later with 20/100 vision. Some astronauts could no longer read, and they’d have to have crew members give them a hand with the fine print.
It’s such a concern that NASA has been worried that squashed eyes and sight problems could end up being the downfall of crewed missions to Mars, which could last for two years or more. In John Phillips’ case, the backs of his eyes had gotten flatter, which pushed the retinas forward. The motion had caused the eyeball equivalent of stretch marks, and his optic nerves were inflamed. Or, to put it simply: It’s bad.
On Earth, we go through a process called “unloading.” When we get out of bed in the morning, all the fluids that built up in our head overnight drain back down to the lower parts of our body. And since we spend a lot of time seated or on our feet, the fluid mostly stays there until we head back to bed.
But astronauts can’t “stand up,” and there’s no gravity in space, so they never have that chance to unload. The half-gallon of fluid that can build up in their heads just kinda stays there. When pressure builds up, it tries to find a way to escape, and what’s the squishiest thing in our head? Our eyes.
So, scientists teamed up with REI (yes, the outdoor equipment retailer) to develop a new sleeping bag that can actually introduce some suction to astronaut’s bodies while they’re asleep. It wraps around the astronaut’s waist and reduces pressure. The suction acts like gravity during the unloading process, drawing fluid down toward their feet and, crucially, away from the eyes.
The technology is still pretty new, so they’re not going to be in use for a while, and scientists aren’t sure if every astronaut is going to need one of these sleeping bags. They’re not sure if astronauts will need them as soon as they go into space, or if they can wait until astronauts start to have eye problems, since not everyone has the same issues.