Jacqueline’s Space: Send a Diabetic to Space

While the adage often goes that you can do anything you set your mind to, there are a few things I simply cannot do.

For one, I can’t ice skate, juggle or eat mashed potatoes. Really. I’ve tried for 21 years.

I also cannot produce insulin. I haven’t been able to since I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes at five years old. Type 1 Diabetes is an autoimmune disease where my body attacked the insulin-producing cells in my pancreas.

Following my diagnosis, a few other activities joined my no-can-do, or at least very-difficult-to-do, list: join the military, become a commercial pilot, go one hour without worrying about my blood sugars.

And, yes, go to space.

It makes sense. I am a bit of a liability. Just going on a walk can cause my blood sugar to drop faster than gravity. I can’t imagine what the physical stress of a spacewalk would do. We also know very little about how the zero gravity of space would impact insulin injections and blood sugar management.  

However, the future of a human colony on Mars just might depend on diabetic space travel.

Since NASA has been sending humans into space, doctors have studied the effects of weightlessness on the human body. One of these effects, as reported by the Smithsonian Magazine in 2014, is prediabetes. In weightlessness, the body does not have to work against gravity, causing it to become lazier and leaving astronauts with insulin resistance and the risk of Type 2 Diabetes following their stints in space.

In response to these studies, as reported in Science Daily in 2018, the University of Nottingham conducted a 3-day bed rest study, which mimics the effects of gravity on the body. The study predicts that certain rehabilitation exercise habits or supplements may reduce some of the adverse effects of weightlessness, but the long journey to Mars is unprecedented. 

Russian cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov holds the record for longest single stay in space – 437 days, 18 hours – but this is nothing compared to the 21 month minimum it would take to travel to Mars and back. 

If someone develops Type 2 Diabetes mid-flight, there is no turning back. They must know how to manage their blood sugars and take insulin now. But, like I said, we know very little about how these necessary aspects of diabetes management would work in the zero gravity of space.

This is where the diabetic astronaut comes in. Perhaps this is my grasp at trying to attain spaceflight, but, to me, there’s only one way to find out – send a diabetic to space. The physiological processes of Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes are vastly different, especially if, in this case, diabetes is prompted by time in space, but the management strategies can be very similar. Type 1 Diabetics must already test their blood sugar multiple times throughout the day and take insulin to monitor their blood sugars. If we send Type 1 Diabetics to space and study it now, while still in our own planet’s orbit, we will have the knowledge necessary to manage the almost unavoidable diabetes-related health problems of future astronauts heading to Mars.

Unlike the fact that Pluto truly is a planet, calling a hoard of diabetics into space is not a hill I am willing to die on. However, November is Diabetes Awareness Month and this interaction between diabetes and space travel brings to light one of the major complications that diabetics face.

Yes, we have to constantly monitor our blood sugars, and how we feel on a day-to-day basis fluctuates with our blood sugars. And, in the midst of all this, we also have to face a world that often turns us away and tells us no.

Maybe I can’t ice skate, juggle or eat mashed potatoes, but in the last 16 years, diabetes has not stopped me from anything I have set my mind to  – college, 20-mile hikes, health and happiness. Diabetic astronauts may be my fantastical dream but there is a reality to it – diabetics, as always, pushing back against the norms and reaching new heights.

Hale is the editor-in-chief. Follow her on Twitter.

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