Are You Fit Enough to Fly In Space?

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Diabetics, take heart. You may not be as fit as a NASA astronaut but that doesn’t mean you can’t fly in space.

So says a former NASA flight surgeon now working with Virgin Galactic, a U.S. offshoot of Richard Branson’s London-based Virgin group that plans to offer commercial suborbital spaceflight services in the next year or so.

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“Virgin right from the very beginning realized that we’re offering spaceflights to some pretty unusual people who are not your typical astronauts, so we needed to address any medical concerns that might come up,” the company’s chief medical officer Jim Vanderploeg told Discovery News.

"Our customer base has a very wide age range, from 20s to 80s. The average age is around 50 and people in that age category and up tend to start having the typical things that we all get as we get older -- high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, difficulty breathing with lung problems and so forth. The concern was 'Can these individuals safely undertake a spaceflight?'" Vanderploeg said.

To find out if aging but enthusiastic armchair astronauts could handle the rocket ride to space and the gravitational tugging of return, the company enlisted its first group of fliers to take training runs in centrifuges.

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“We put them the g-forces of a spaceflight and they did amazingly well,” Vanderploeg said.

The volunteers first underwent medical screenings to ensure they could safely endure the centrifuge and they were monitored during the training.

The results gave Virgin Galactic confidence that people in their 50s, 60s and 70s, including some with chronic but manageable medical conditions, could safely fly in space, Vanderploeg said.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees commercial spaceflight, also has been researching how non-professional astronauts will handle the stresses of spaceflight.

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