Spacewalking May Cost Astronauts Their Fingernails

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Here’s a scene you may have missed: Astronauts seal themselves into pressurized spacesuits and leave their ship to make repairs outside. When they get back, one guy peels off his glove liner, looks down and sees that his fingernail has come off too.

Turns out, that’s not fiction. “It’s probably the biggest nuisance,” says Deva Newman, an MIT professor who conducted a statistical analysis of injuries reported during spacewalks. “It’s not a show-stopper, but it is the most prevalent thing.”

The problem is particularly pressing for astronauts with wide fingers, Newman and colleagues found, a result that questions conventional wisdom that nail trauma results from astronauts’ fingers repeatedly contacting hard inner surfaces of their balloon-like gloves.

Some of the damage may be due to the gloves impeding blood flow at the joints where astronauts’ fingers attach to the palms of the hands.

“The damage is cumulative. The astronauts are wearing these gloves hundreds if not thousands of hours for training,” Newman says.

The glove “looks soft, and it is until it’s pressurized,” veteran spacewalker Stephen Robinson said in a NASA interview. “In the vacuum of space, it’s pressurized and it’s actually like a little balloon and it’s quite stiff … so, every time you want to move your hand, you have to overcome the stiffness of this balloon glove. You do lots of hand exercises (to prepare) and when you come in after a spacewalk, your hands are sore.”

Newman’s group at MIT is looking at alternative glove designs, as are other research organizations and private firms, including a company set up by former aerospace engineer Peter Homer who won NASA prize money for his efforts.

Newman research will be published next month in the journal Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine.

(Image: A prototype spacesuit glove undergoes testing during a NASA competition in April. Credit: NASA)

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