Daniel E. Vigo, MD, PhD
Independent Researcher: Institute for Biomedical Research (Catholic University of Argentina and National Scientific and Technical Research Council) & InnovaSpace Advisory Board Member
Belgrano to Mars
The Antarctic continent is considered to be one of the most realistic analogues found on Earth of the situations of extreme isolation and confinement experienced in space. Since 2014, we have been conducting at the Belgrano II Argentine Antarctic Station the project "Chronobiology of Antarctic Isolation: the use of the Belgrano II Station as a model of biological desynchronization and spatial analogue", also known as “Belgrano to Mars”. The project aims to explore the impact of a year of isolation on different physiological, psychological and social variables. In particular, we are interested in studying how biological rhythms are affected by the lack of natural light during the four months of polar night typical of that latitude. The study of the chronobiological responses to extreme isolation increases our understanding of the physiological mechanisms underlying human biological rhythms, with applications in space exploration or other highly demanding professional settings, as well as in human health.
The Belgrano II Antarctic station consists of a series of scientific research facilities located approximately 1,300 km away from the South Pole at 34°S, 77°W. It is the most southerly Argentinian station and one of the three southernmost permanent stations on the planet. The temperature ranges from 5°C to 48°C below zero. One feature of this station is that, due to its latitude, it has four months of continuous sunlight, four months of twilight and four months of polar night. The station crew is composed of around 20 men. To generate a light-dark cycle during the summer, windows with blinds closed are used, in accordance with a normal sleep routine, while using eye covers during the night if necessary. Exposure to ultraviolet light is also stronger and sunglasses for external work are mandatory. Conversely, in the wintertime, the light-dark cycle depends entirely on artificial light. Schedules with well-defined times for meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) work and rest are paramount in Antarctic stations.
“Belgrano to Mars” is a collaborative project in which researchers Camila Tortello and Santiago Plano (UCA-CONICET and UNQ) participate in the analysis and interpretation of the information and Juan Manuel Cuiuli (Joint Antarctic Command) in the scientific coordination between Buenos Aires and Antarctica. Other members of the project are Marta Barbarito (Argentine Antarctic Institute), Diego Golombek and Patricia Agostino (UNQ and CONICET), Agustín Folgueira and Juan Manuel López (Central Military Hospital), and Guido Simonelli (University of Montreal). Field work during isolation is carried out by physicians from the wintering crews at the station and staff members that volunteer for the study. Antarctic scientific activity is coordinated by the National Antarctic Directorate (DNA), which together with the Joint Antarctic Command, provides the logistics of the bases.
This year, we have traveled to Antarctica to supervise the implementation of the Belgrano to Mars project in the field, to test measurement instruments and to train the crew in the use of the equipment and software. The trip demanded six weeks of navigation in the ARA Almirante Iríza icebreaker. In addition, we started working with the European Space Agency (ESA) in the operational test of the Telemedecine Tempus Pro equipment, under the framework of an ESA-CONAE-DNA agreement. The project, led by Dr. Víctor Demaría-Pesce, from ESA's European Astronaut Center, involves conducting operational simulations in a situation of extreme isolation and confinement, which will contribute to the design of a definitive prototype to be used by astronauts and medical teams during future space missions to the Moon and Mars. The equipment will be tested at Belgrano II (Dr. Bruno Cauda and Enf. Luis Almaraz) and Carlini (Dra. Melina D'Angelo and Enf. Gustavo Cruz) stations, through six simulations that will recreate medical scenarios similar to those encountered by astronauts in space.
Lessons to be learned from this kind of study
We have recently published in the journal Scientific Reports (from the Nature Group) data regarding changes in the sleep-wake cycle during a winter campaign at Belgrano II. We observed that during the polar night the subjects tended to go to bed one hour later and sleep one hour less. A possible explanation is that this is due to the lack of exposure to natural light, since bright light acts as a synchronizer of our biological rhythms. This loss of sleep was somewhat compensated by naps, which were longer during that time of year.
These results show us how biological rhythms can be desynchronized in periods of prolonged confinement, such as the ones we have had to go through during the quarantine periods instituted in different countries. Moreover, it highlights the importance of exposure to natural light in the morning and darkness during the night and maintaining fixed activity and rest routines to avoid the desynchronization of our biological rhythms. Other sleep hygiene measures include the limiting of daytime naps to 30 minutes, regularly exercising (it may be necessary to avoid working out before bedtime), having a light dinner, avoiding stimulants like caffeine and nicotine close to bedtime, and making sure that the sleep environment is dark, silent and with a pleasant temperature. The beneficial effects of having good sleep relate to an increase in alertness during the day, the prevention of anxiety or depression, and the improvement of our general health, which in turn will reduce the chances of becoming ill.
Ever fancied spending some time in Antarctica? If so, take a look through the writings of Dr Stijn Thoolen, an ESA-sponsored medical doctor spending 12 months at the Concordia research station. His photos will either inspire you to go do it, or remind you of how desolate and EXTREMELY cold it is! Do take a look at Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of his blog series, talking about his time at the world's southernmost continent.
Dr Stijn Thoolen
Medical Research Doctor, Concordia Research Station, Antarctica
It is a beautiful summer day. There is even less wind than usual (with constant summer temperatures, almost always a blue sky and few weather changes, we are mainly concerned with wind), so I am not afraid to go outside in my t-shirt today. The sun reflecting off the snow is attacking me from all directions, and I will most probably burn, but I don’t care. It may be my only chance this year (and I imagine that in a few months I will look back on this day just like you must now look back at those days at the beach, or under the green trees, in the warm sun…).
It is busy in front of the station. To the left, an empty rack is being carried away, to the right boxes are sorted, behind me a human chain is carrying them away into a container, and in front of me the green “Merlot” hoists the heaviest stuff. The chaos has something of a busy market on the village square (but then just a little different). Everyone is helping to organize those few 1000 kilos of food brought in by the overland traverse. It had arrived here yesterday, finally, after a day or ten on the ice. Huge logistics. You could say that all that food has arrived just in time, after that monstrous New Year’s Eve dinner two days ago (never seen so much food, not enjoyable anymore). But now that I see with my own eyes what is being stored in those containers and in the station, I am confident we won’t starve this winter.
Summer feels like one big party. I have installed myself in the ESA lab by now, as well as within our DC16 crew, who are all still happy to participate in the biomedical research projects (the ESA lab is also a party). Every few days another plane comes in to deliver a new load of guests or equipment, and pick up old ones. Nobody lives here permanently (although some are almost considered part of the furniture after too many summer campaigns). We are all guests, and we are all working towards one common goal: knowledge.
There are currently around 70 people here at Concordia, a beautiful collection of the most diverse backgrounds but with that same goal, and all of us equally idiot to think that Antarctica is interesting enough to leave the comfort of home for. Seismologists, carpenters, glaciologists, climatologists, electricians, mechanics, meteorologists, astronomers, plumbers, physicists, physicians, cooks, ICT specialists, a cleaner, and a station leader. It makes for a lively experience and ensures that there is plenty to discover besides writing blog posts.
We hope you enjoy Part 3 of the blog by Dr Stijn Thoolen, an ESA-sponsored medical doctor who is spending 12 months at the Concordia research station in Antarctica conducting experiments. Do take a look at Part 1 and Part 2 in his series of blogs, talking about his great adventure to the world's southernmost continent.
Dr Stijn Thoolen
Medical Research Doctor, Concordia Research Station, Antarctica
The end of our world is full of surprises…
November 13, 2019, East-Antarctic plateau
My arm has gotten tired now of wiping the freshly formed ice from my airplane window every two minutes, but I am too excited to stop. I almost can’t believe it. Everywhere I look is ice. We have been flying over this ice sheet at 5000 meters altitude for about three hours now, with just nothing at all on the horizon. Completely nothing. And even the horizon seems to disappear at times, thanks to the surrealistic way in which the ever-present sunlight melts the white clouds and the ice together. An endless, motionless ocean of ice, that almost makes us disappear as well. I am just wondering if the pilots have a better idea of where we are, when suddenly two familiar towers appear in the distance. Concordia! My new home! And if I already had any expectations from all those preparations of the last months (years), they were now considerably exceeded for sure. What a special and bizarre place, on the middle of that ice sheet, out of nothing: that people live here!
Can you really prepare for a journey to the end of the world? I just hope that all those efforts of the past months haven’t been for nothing, but with all these surprises the past few days I am starting to doubt it. Since our arrival in Christchurch, New Zealand three days earlier it all went so terribly fast again. We hadn’t even left the airport yet, badly jetlagged and craving for a nice bed, when the IPEV/PNRA reception committee cheerfully told us that our next flight to Mario Zucchelli station was taking off sooner due to rising katabatic winds (I had to look it up as well). Here is your bag with polar gear, the key of your hotel room which you will never use, briefing in two hours, boarding in four, good luck!
We welcome guest blogger Christine this week, writing about the popular sport of skiing, which can take place in extreme environments, with below-zero freezing temperatures, avalanche risk, altitude and unpredictable conditions, in addition to the inherent dangers linked to hurtling down a snowy slope at speed.
Founder of TheSkiGirl.com, a blog created after her experiences learning how to ski. Her goal is to provide skiers with the resources they’ll need to improve their skiing abilities and enjoy all that this amazing winter sport has to offer.
Skiing is an exciting and thrilling pursuit that is loved by many adventure seekers and adrenaline junkies around the world. High speeds, steep slopes, and a genuine connection to the natural world are some of the many reasons why this winter sport is loved by so many people. But many of the same factors that make skiing so amazing, also create inherent risks. Let’s take a look at the dangers of professional skiing and how to avoid them here.
One of the most common risks associated with skiing is bodily injury. The high speeds involved with the sport alongside natural and manmade obstacles make injuries an everyday occurrence on the ski slopes. No matter how skilled you are or how cautious you ski, the risk of injury is present anytime you head downhill.
According to research by Kevin G Shea et al. (2014), knee injuries account for approximately one third of injuries in skiers. This makes sense as you have two long planks attached to your feet when you are skiing - a bad wipe-out, wrong turn, or hard impact can put a tremendous amount of strain on your knees. Knee sprains, ligament tears, and even dislocations can occur when skiing.
Upper body injuries can also occur when skiing such as dislocated shoulders, broken collarbones, and sprained wrists. One of the most dangerous and worrisome things that can happen on the slopes is a head injury. This can be very serious and even result in death so it’s important to always (and I mean always!) wear a helmet when you are out skiing.
Sadly, actress Natasha Richardson (wife of Liam Neeson) was not wearing a helmet in 2009, when she suffered a seemingly innocuous fall while skiing on a beginner's slope on Mont Tremblant, Quebec, subsequently collapsing and dying from a blunt force trauma injury to the brain.
HOW TO AVOID BODILY INJURY WHEN SKIING
● Always ski in control. Many injuries occur when you ski too fast or beyond your ability levels. When you get in over your head, accidents occur much more frequently. Play it safe and stay at a good speed at all times.
● Wear a helmet. This is a must. A helmet can very literally save your life and is easy protection against one of the biggest dangers when skiing.
● Stay alert. This means you should always keep an eye out for other skiers around you as well as any other obstacles. Make sure you scout any jumps or obstacles before you ski off of them. Watch for any other people below you as well.
● Get in Shape. Many skiing injuries occur due to being in poor physical condition. Approach skiing as you would any other physically demanding activity. Exercise and strength training before stepping foot on the snow to limit your chances for non-accidental injury.
Skiing is a wintertime activity. That means that cold temperatures and large amounts of snow can be your best friend in terms of great snow and a long season. But these same elements can be dangerous as well. If you are not properly protected from the cold and snow you can risk putting your body, and even your life, in harm’s way.
Any exposed skin you have while skiing can lead to frostbite. This is a serious and dangerous skin condition that can be really painful and even lead to potential amputation. Cold and wet weather can also cause hypothermia, which can be a life-threatening condition that causes your body to shut down when it gets too cold.
There are 3 stages of frostbite: Early stage (frostnip), superficial frostbite, and deep frostbite, most commonly affecting extremities, like fingers, toes, ears and the nose. Prolonged exposure to extreme cold can often lead to deep frostbite, involving all skin layers and requiring amputation of affected areas in severe cases.
HOW TO AVOID COLD EXPOSURE WHEN SKIING
● Wear proper warm weather clothing/gear. You need to insulate your body against the cold and wearing the proper clothing is key here. Always wear gloves to cover your fingers. Properly layer your clothing to provide additional warmth and protection.
● Stay Dry. Another critical aspect of keeping your body warm and limiting cold exposure is keeping your body dry. Always wear waterproof ski pants and jackets to repel snow and moisture and keep your internal layers dry.
● Go inside when needed. If you’re feeling really cold, the best thing you can do is find a warm place, such as a ski lodge or other indoor location, to warm up.
Skiing is full of natural dangers as well. Obstacles such as trees can cause severe injury and be really dangerous. But Avalanches are also a concern, especially if you are skiing in the backcountry. These giant snow slides account for 20-40 deaths a year in North America and can be truly terrifying for any skier who has seen one or knows the danger they pose. Avalanches are nothing to take lightly and proper education and knowledge is key to avoiding them.
HOW TO AVOID AVALANCHES WHEN SKIING
● Educate yourself. One of the best ways to avoid avalanches and limit your potential danger is to be aware of certain conditions that cause avalanches and learn how to identify and avoid them.
● Play it safe. It’s always better to play it safe than to risk getting caught in a slide. If conditions look sketchy, don’t ski. It’s as simple as that. One good run is not worth your life.
Skiing is a dangerous activity. There is no way around that. But you can limit the dangers and avoid potential risks by following the highly recommended tips found above. Have you ever been injured while skiing? Do you think it could have been prevented? Let us know - visit our site!
Welcome to Part 2 of the blog by Dr Stijn Thoolen, an ESA-sponsored medical doctor spending 12 months at Concordia research station in Antarctica. He facilitates a number of experiments on the effects of isolation, light deprivation, and extreme temperatures on the human body and mind.
Dr Stijn Thoolen
Medical Research Doctor, Concordia Research Station, Antarctica
November 8, 2019, somewhere above Asia
I started early today, at 05:00 AM. Despite my sleep deprivation from a too long Nintendo farewell, I now jumped out of my friend’s bed without struggles. I give him, still half asleep, a last hug, and while I walk out of the door that radio in my head spontaneously starts playing again:
Today it the day, finally. There have been few days in the past months where Concordia didn’t cross my mind. Enough thinking, enough talking, weeks of preparation and training, deadline after deadline finished: now it is time to make it happen! From Amsterdam to Paris, Hong Kong, Melbourne, Christchurch, and then off to the Antarctic, via the Italian coastal station Mario Zuccheli to our icy Dome C. It is only six flights and a day or five. What a party, and that fun is only further enhanced by all those happily-surprised faces of airport staff to whom I have to show my travel plans today (“Oh wow! Best of luck!”).
Today I am focused, bouncing from airport to airport full of curiosity, but the past few days were quite different. I have been ready for Concordia since the end of my training period early October, but over the past month more and more moments of realization squeezed through the goals and automatic pilot of my preparations, that I will really be away, for a full year, from about everything I see around me. Not that it bothered me much at first. It was quite funny actually (hah, Dutch gray rainy day, shall I miss you too?). But with my departure getting closer and the goodbyes less and less trivial, I was now getting overwhelmed with a feeling of uncertainty, a bit of fear perhaps, that I have not felt in years. So there I stood, sobbing and sniffling in my girlfriend’s arms at JFK airport in New York (you can imagine how awkward it is when at the same time a control-savoring security guard is screaming at you: “Sir, I need you to step out of the line, right now!”)
InnovaSpace is pleased to welcome Dr Stijn Thoolen to tell us more about life at the Concordia Research Station in the Antarctic, an extreme environment where temperatures can fall below −80 °C (−112 °F) in the winter months. As an ESA-sponsored medical research doctor, Stijn will remain at the Franco-Italian research station for 13 months - definitely not an activity for the faint hearted!
Dr Stijn Thoolen
Medical Research Doctor, Concordia Research Station, Antarctica
75 ° 05’59 “S; 123 ° 19’56” E.
I will spend 13 months of my life at these coordinates from November onwards. Far away from my girlfriend, my family and friends, from everything that I know and have loved for the past 28 years. A small 1700 km away from the South Pole, situated on a 3270-high ice sheet, with 40% less oxygen than at sea level (the atmosphere is thinner at the poles), a humidity lower than in the Sahara, average temperatures of –30°C in summer and –65°C in winter, four months without any ray of sunshine (is this lunchtime, or should I go to bed already?) and without possibility of evacuation for nine months, the Franco-Italian research station Concordia on Dome C in Antarctica sounds more like a base on another planet. Every year the European Space Agency sends a ‘hivernaut’ (a winter version of an astronaut?) to this abandoned outpost at the bottom of our globe to perform biomedical experiments on the crew, in preparation for missions to the Moon, Mars and who knows what’s next. This year it’s my turn, and those 13 months are starting to get awfully close…
I hear you ask: why (…would you do that for God’s sake)?
“In our history it was some horde of furry little mammals who hid from the dinosaurs, colonized the treetops and later scampered down to domesticate fire, invent writing, construct observatories and launch space vehicles” – Carl Sagan
I sometimes ask myself that question as well, but you can imagine that the answer is as obvious as the undertaking itself.
Maybe we should start with a short self-evaluation:
Self-evaluation is not something we often do. At least, I was never good at it. When everything goes according to plan, and everyone around you screams how wonderful it is that “little Stijn wants to become a surgeon!”, you aren’t really encouraged to take a critical look at yourself, right? But sometimes a shock (or two) helps to adjust a bit. A lesson in humility perhaps.
For me, that first shock came about five years ago. I had said “yes” a little too much, a good friend died, my parents divorced, and with about ten suitcases of mental luggage I left for a research internship in Boston, USA, during my medical studies. In such a new environment, full with material to reflect on, things became a little more relative. I realised that nothing is as obvious as it seems, that some things might actually be bigger than us (the Universe, God, the flying spaghetti monster, you choose), and, even better, how beautiful and special it is that we are able to witness all that (I know this sounds dull, but I dare you to try with your eyes fixed on a bright, starry sky).
Rosemary S. A. Shinkai, DDS, MSc, PhD
Professor of Dentistry, Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil
We still do not know much about the changes in dental and orofacial structures, functions, and diseases beyond Earth. Early studies on aerospace dentistry published at the end of the 1960’s and 1970’s addressed some concerns about oral health in astronauts and challenges for dental treatment delivery in space. If astronauts are selected for being the most prepared and healthy humans to withstand the hard conditions in outer space, what about everyday regular people, the very young or old individuals? Or pregnant space voyagers? Microgravity and radiation in long-term spaceflights and a lifelong stay in space stations or settlements would require specific oral health care.
Teeth, gums, tongue, bones, and muscles are part of a complex system, which is highly innervated and irrigated by blood vessels to allow chewing, swallowing, speaking, and smiling. Saliva is produced by a number of large and small salivary glands to lubricate the mouth, form the food bolus, and counterbalance acids produced by mouth bacteria after meals. Recent studies have shown that the microgravity and spaceflight environment alters jaw bone physiology, dental development, saliva proteins, and salivary gland morphology in mice flown on a US shuttle and a Russian biosatellite. Another study revealed that adult rats submitted to gravity tests showed remodeling of craniomandibular bones. Simulated microgravity also modified gene expression and physiology of Streptoccocus mutans and Streptoccocus sanguinis, possibly altering the cariogenic potential of these bacteria. However, the specific effect of space radiation also needs to be investigated.
It still is unknown to what extent the same effect would occur in human astronauts. Besides the potential structural and physiological changes in the craniomandibular system, other behavioral factors and epigenetics are involved in space oral health. For example, dental caries result from a frequent exposure to acids produced by mouth bacteria after ingestion of sugar, mainly sticky or soft, paste-like foods. Thus, eating and cleaning habits modify the risk for dental caries. And the protective saliva flow and composition vary with water drinking, chewing stimulation, medication, and stress. All these factors may be altered in space life and would affect individual responses to not only dental caries risk, but also gum inflammation, orofacial pain, bone loss and repair. Understanding the underlying mechanisms to prevent oral health problems and have effective interventions seems to be appropriate for the planning of long-term space travel.
So, space dentistry may be an interesting job in the future!
Adam J Crellin
Graduate Medical Student, Oxford University; Analog Astronaut, Austrian Space Forum
While attending the 2019 European Mars Conference in London this week at the Institute of Physics, we had the pleasure of witnessing the graduation ceremony of the next cohort of newly qualified Austrian Space Forum (OeWF) analog astronauts, who will take part in next years' AMADEE20 Mars analog mission in Israel. Analog astronauts are people who have been trained to test equipment and conduct activities under simulated space conditions, and they play an important role in preparing for future Moon and Mars missions. We liked so much the graduation speech given by analog astronaut Adam Crellin that we asked if we could publish it here on the InnovaSpace website to inspire all the young would-be astronauts out there - dream big!
"I would like to open by saying not only how much of an honour it is to speak on behalf of my classmates and the Austrian Space Forum today, but also to stand in front of you all as a newly qualified analog astronaut. I am especially proud to be speaking at a European-wide conference in the UK, organised by the recently reformed Mars Society UK.
In classrooms across the UK, and even the world, children are being asked by their primary school teachers, the existential question of ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’. Some of these children, fascinated by space, will say they want to be an astronaut. Children often continue this hope as they grow older, perhaps keeping it a bit quieter, guarding it a bit more closely. Later, they then discover that there are a huge range of diverse opportunities in space, and that astronauts are one small cog in a large machine. A machine that contains astronauts who plant flags; plant experts who grow astrocrops; astronomers who study the universe and its laws; lawyers who write legislation through careful engineering; engineers who build spacecraft that rock; and, well, for those who like rocks, there is geology as well as countless other professions."
"As we prepare for a renewed age of crewed missions beyond low Earth orbit, to fill the steps of the Apollo astronauts, and extend those tracks further than have ever been achieved before, we are reminded of the importance of analog missions. In the same way famous twentieth-century polar explorer, Roald Amundsen, spent years experimenting, refining, and proving equipment and procedures suitable for a South Pole expedition, we too are preparing for a Mars expedition. And equally so, preparedness will be key to success. For theory and strictly controlled laboratory research, can only partially answer some of the questions about what to expect, and how to work on Mars. Analog research missions, including those of the Austrian Space Forum, help to provide further answers.
To be an analog astronaut, is to be a unique cog in our space industry machine. A cog whose sporks interlink with many different cogs, working across disciplines with research groups throughout Europe. A well-oiled cog, remaining fit and healthy in preparedness for any challenge which may arise. And a cog which turns equally well with many cogs, both the rusted expert cogs, and the shiny new ones, who we seek to inspire the next generation of Mars pioneers; perhaps the most important task we all have. But despite these unique qualities, we remember that we are still a small cog and that it is our collective effort, turning together, which will one day lead us to Mars. To be part of this small community with big dreams, is the greatest honour of any analog astronaut."
Adam J Crellin, 4th November 2019
Dr Karina Oliani
ER Doctor, mountaineer & adventurer
My name is Karina Oliani, and I'm a doctor specializing in Emergency Medicine and Rescue in Remote Areas. Outdoor challenges have always been my passion, and because of this, I've participated in countless expeditions at sea, up mountains, in jungles and in the desert, including climbing Everest 2 times - by the South face in 2013 and North face in 2017. I also love diving and have dived in all the oceans with the biggest predators.
In parallel, I am a producer of audio-visual content and have already produced work for the Globo programs "Fantástico" and "Esporte Espetacular" in Brazil, and I have worked as a presenter and guide for the reality shows "Celebrities' Challenge" and "Extreme Mission" on the Discovery Channel.
For more than four years I have been trying to realize my dream of climbing K2, which is considered to be the most difficult and dangerous mountain to climb on Earth. The first year I couldn't do it because of work commitments, the next year through a lack of sponsorship, and then once again it was not possible as I became very ill after being bitten by a tick. But when you have had a desire for such a long time, you don't give up easily!
The expedition to K2 wasn't easy for me, either physically or mentally. As already mentioned, for most of 2018 I was battling the tick-borne Lyme disease, which is transmitted by the bite of a tick infected with the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, and for which I still have to take medications. As it turned out though, I hardly felt the effects of the disease during the climb, probably because of the decreasing oxygen levels during the ascent - I think perhaps the Borrelia didn't like the lack of oxygen!
K2 is a truly beautiful mountain, very impressive, and one that I was always drawn to, maybe because it represents every challenge a climber expects and more. It is situated in the Karakoram mountain range, which is an extension of the Himalayan mountains, and it sits on the borders between Pakistan and China. K2 has been dubbed “The Wild Mountain,” and one in five of the climbers who have attempted to reach its summit have died.
K2 is located in a place so remote and inaccessible that it was only discovered by scientific mapping in 1904, and was only climbed for the first time 50 years later, by an Italian team. In 2000, Waldemar Niclevicz became the first and only Brazilian to have ever reached the summit of K2, and subsequently, I became only the 2nd Brazilian and the 1st Brazilian woman to successfully reach the top.
In all the expedition took a total of 50 days. We first made our way to a local community called Askole, home to just 200 inhabitants and a place that can only be reached using 4x4 vehicles. Then came eight days of trekking through Pakistani villages and completely inhospitable regions to reach the base camp. This involved walking 120 kilometers along an extremely complex trail of ice, snow, glacial sediment, rocks, small deserts and rivers. K2 is definitely not the type of place where you get tired and decide to go home!
We then began the 1st cycle of acclimatization, followed by 4-5 days rest. Acclimatization is extremely important for the body to begin to adapt to the high altitude and prevent more serious side effects. At this time you are submitting your body to a low oxygen environment, and so, your bone marrow understands that it needs to produce more red blood cells to carry the little oxygen that is available.
K2 is not a place for beginners and it is the mind that works the hardest in this situation. In high altitude mountains, 20% of success is physical, and the rest is psychological. In mountains like K2, you deal with a high risk of death, little communication and not much to do, and this can seriously affect your mind.
Consequently, my climbing partner Maximo Kausch and I tried to look upon the expedition with a positive vibe, and without placing pressure on ourselves. Obviously we had concerns, but we tried to do everything calmly, waiting to see what would happen... if we made it - great! If not, that was fine too... We knew the expedition was much more than just the summit. We passed through beautiful landscapes, and saw completely unknown mountains, and this is worth a lot.
We set off for out attempt on the summit at dawn on the 17th July, accompanied by 118 other climbers. But as we were nearing the top on this same day, an avalanche swept down the mountain, injuring a Sherpa and sweeping away two of the fixed ropes needed to continue the rest of the ascent. The mission had to be aborted and everyone returned to base camp. The avalanche meant that of the 120 climbers who would have attempted the summit this season, only 18 decided to continue on with the mission.
After this first attempt to reach the summit, I began to feel that my lungs were feeling a bit wet, namely, the beginning of pulmonary edema, which is common at such extreme altitudes. In mountain medicine, the first medicines to use in this case are Nifedipine, and then Viagra, as they help the vessels in the lungs to relax, preventing the contraction caused by the lack of oxygen and as a consequence, pulmonary hypertension.
Despite feeling exhausted, just 2 days after reaching the base camp we decided to attempt to reach the summit again in another time window that emerged. After all, it could be the last opportunity, as in general, K2 does not give many chances to reach the top in a season.
Persistence, in this case, was the key to our success, and on the 25th of August, exactly one month since our arrival at the mountain, we succeeded in reaching the summit of K2, the second highest mountain in the world, at an altitude of 8,611 meters. As with nearly everything in life, reaching the end goal involves a series of events leading up to it, and our expedition was filled with stories, things learnt and adventures, and above all, the sweet sensation of having fulfilled another dream!
I have to thank wholeheartedly the sponsors of my K2 expedition - Volvo Cars, Pulsar Invest, John John, Outback Steakhouse, and Gillette Venus. And support from Canon, GoPro HERO7, Spot, Puma and The North Face. I am eternally grateful to them for believing in this dream and in my potential.
MSc Space Physiology & Health; Human Performance Intern, McLaren Applied Technologies
With international space agencies and the real-life Tony Stark (Elon Musk) making huge advances in rocket technology, it is likely that within the next couple of decades humankind will touch down on Mars. However, this is only half the battle. The gravity on Mars is roughly one third as strong as Earth’s. You may be thinking “great, everything will require less effort”, and you’d be right, however, there is a huge caveat to that. As we’ve found from the results of time spent in space (the longest continuous period being 14.4 months), when people are exposed to levels of gravity lower than that on Earth, losses in muscle and bone occur; predominantly, in muscles which we continually use to walk and maintain our posture. You may have heard the expression ‘use it or lose it’ - hugely applicable here. These losses can increase astronauts’ risk of injury when returning to Earth by leaving them very weak and fragile. A return mission to Mars will take around 3 YEARS to complete, mainly because of the wait for the two planets to be close enough in proximity again to allow a relatively short journey home. That’s around 12 months in microgravity and around 26 months in Martian gravity. Now, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that, based on the numbers, the outlook for muscle retention isn’t great. That being said, we‘re still pretty uninformed about the extent to which living on Mars will stimulate our muscles.
Recently, my colleagues and I conducted an investigation to try to shed some light on the matter. To do this properly, we needed to achieve two key things: 1) simulate walking in Mars gravity, 2) measure the activity in the muscles used for walking. With this, we compared the muscle activity produced while walking on Mars to that produced when walking on Earth, gauging the degree of muscle loss that we might expect for a mission to Mars and to inform countermeasures.
To simulate Mars gravity, we used a technique called lower body positive pressure (LBPP). There are a few different ways in which you can simulate partial gravity environments, but this one has fewer limitations than the rest. LBPP involves putting someone inside an air-tight inflatable box from the waist down. Through manipulation of the air pressure within, it can generate a lifting force, changing the weight of the person inside. Our device was designed and built by engineers at the John Ernsting Aerospace Physiology Laboratory at the Pontificia Universidade do Rio Grande do Sul (PUCRS) in Porto Alegre, Brazil. With a treadmill placed underneath, the participant could then walk in simulated Mars gravity. To measure the amount of activity inside the leg muscles, we then attached electrodes to the skin at each of the muscles we were interested in (a method called electromyography) which picked up an electrical signal that muscles give off when they are being worked. The more intense the signal, the more active that muscle is while walking.
What we found was quite unexpected. The results of our investigation suggested that there was no significant difference between the muscle activity observed while walking in Mars gravity and the muscle activity observed walking on Earth. If this were to be true, then it would not be foolish to think that we could use the 26 months on the Martian surface to reverse losses in muscle and bone suffered on the outward journey in preparation for the return trip. However, there were two important variables that we failed to account for in our experiment. These variables were stride length and stride frequency when walking.
The moon is smaller than Mars, and so there is even less gravity there, but the same principle applies. With this in mind, even if the results of our experiment were to be true and the walking muscles are getting just as much activity with each step on Mars as they are on Earth, theoretically, they will be used less often. Considering our ‘use it or lose it’ principle, this would still mean muscle and bone loss to a disabling degree in the absence of effective counter strategies; which are currently lacking. More studies need to be done around this area, accounting for all variables, to further our understanding of human performance on Mars and ensure the safety of our astronauts, or we’ll be keeping Elon Musk waiting at the launch pad!