Breathe in, breathe out. Tim Kopra and I are heading back to the airlock… This time we are not going on a spacewalk but instead we will be pumping some of the air out of the Quest module in the name of science. By reducing the pressure in the airlock we can simulate being at high altitude – or in a future lunar habitat that will likely be kept at lower pressures than on Earth – because it is cheaper and easier to build structures to withstand lower pressures.

Tim Kopra in the Quest Airlock after his spacewalk 21 December. Credits: ESA/NASA

Tim Kopra in the Quest Airlock after his spacewalk 21 December. Credits: ESA/NASA

Living in space is not easy on the human body. Over millions of years humans have evolved to live with gravity, take it away and our bodies adapt and cope remarkably well, but I still need to monitor almost every aspect of my health up here. Luckily I have a flight surgeon at the European Astronaut Centre and a team of biomedical engineers who watch out for me daily, but space medicine is still a very new discipline.

One area researchers are looking at is my lungs – astronaut’s lungs may become easily irritated or inflamed if we inhale dust particles (thankfully I haven’t had any problems so far). For the Airway Monitoring experiment Tim and I will breathe into a specially-developed mask that measures the nitric oxide we exhale which is a good indicator for inflammation of the lungs.

The weightlessness makes dust more likely to get into our lungs. On Earth, dust settles on the floor, but without gravity dust never settles, which is one of the reasons we clean the Space Station as thoroughly as we can every Saturday. On the Moon and Mars it will be worse because, although there is gravity, it is weaker than on Earth and there is a lot more very fine dust, which also sticks to astronauts due to static electricity.

Training with Airway Monitoring equipment at NASA's Jonson Space Center, USA.

Training with Airway Monitoring equipment at NASA’s Jonson Space Center, USA.

On Earth doctors would use an X-ray or CT scan to test whether a patient’s lungs are inflamed but in space these large machines are not an option – so necessity breeds creativity. The researchers of the Airway Monitoring experiment devised this “simple” nitric-oxide test and Tim and I are part of the study to see if it works in space.

The Airway Monitoring experiment is the kind of research we astronauts love. Not only do we get to use the airlock for scientific purposes – but we are also contributing to creating knowledge that will help our future colleagues explore new environments in our Solar System. Moreover, this study will increase our general understanding of problems with airway inflammation and could provide valuable research into new methods for treating conditions such as asthma. As a bonus Airway Monitoring does not require that we draw blood samples so the needles can stay in their pouches!

Breathe in, breathe out. For most people this is second nature and we hardly think about it until something goes wrong. For the millions of people suffering from asthma around the world this nitric-oxide lung test could offer a quick and cheap way to diagnose lung problems everywhere – if it works in space it should work anywhere on our planet.