We’re constantly bombarded with the mind-bending physics of space. Having just about wrapped our heads around the general concept of black holes and the anti-aging effects of time dilation, we’re hit with another doozy. Does space actually make you taller?
The answer is, yes, a jaunt out in the abyss can indeed make you taller, so instead of saving up for that experimental leg lengthening surgery, you may want to invest in Elon Musk’s SpaceX venture.
Getting taller isn’t as far beyond the realms of understanding, as the literal bending of spacetime by the gravity of large objects, but the idea that you’ll miraculously sprout a few inches is still a bit of a thinker. So how does it all work?
Well, we as a species have known for a long time that a good night’s sleep will see you grow around ½ an inch.
This isn’t because you eat your greens and drink a lot of water (although you should), it’s simply because the disks in your spine relax and ease apart, which is essentially the same thing that happens in space.
Casting off the earthly shackles of gravity by blasting into the sparkling night doesn’t just lift you off your feet and make going to the bathroom somewhat of a conundrum, it also affects your insides.
When you’re stuck on Earth, experiencing the grudge of day-to-day existence, gravity is literally squeezing you as if you’re an empty Coke can. Under this gravitational pressure, the disks in your spine compress, reducing your height by roughly ½ an inch.
Have you ever really wondered why older people start to shrink? It isn’t just a part of the natural aging process, it’s the long-term physical effects of existing under the pressure of Earth’s gravity.
The cartilage between our joints wears away, the disks in our spine snuggle closer together, and we end up around the same height we were in our mid to late teens.
In space, on the other hand, with only microgravity to compete with, the disks in our spinal column have themselves a lovely time.
Expanding, the annulus that pulls our vertebrae together relaxes, and our spines elongate as a whole, leaving us significantly taller than we once were when we roamed the blue planet.
A slight growth spurt in low gravity makes sense when you consider the effects high gravity would have on human beings.
Our blood would drain to our legs, our bones would break, crushed under the immense pressure, and we’d be anchored in place, unable to move. It would be the least of our worries, but we’d be decidedly shorter than before.
As much as that sounds like a hellish situation, the truth is that the effects of extended exposure to low gravity aren’t all that great either. As you’re no longer using most of your muscles, they begin to atrophy, the heart included.
This is why astronauts need physical therapy and cardiovascular testing upon returning to Earth. Bone density also shrinks by 1% a month, and eyeball pressure fluctuates, amounting to long-term visual impairments.
Astronaut, Chris Hadfield, even reported that when he returned to life on Earth after a hefty stint in orbit that he was perturbed by small details of the transition.
For instance, he had to alter the way he spoke to account for the fact his lips and tongue suddenly weighed what felt like an inordinate amount.
How Much Do Astronauts Grow in Space?
Depending on how long an astronaut spends in orbit, they can expect to grow by roughly 3%, which averages out at about 2 inches (5cm); however, this elongation is only momentary.
As soon as they’re back on Earth, gravity worms its way back into their bodily functions and re-compresses the disks in their spinal columns.
Even though most of us can only dream of growing an extra 2 inches, the idea of permanent vertical metamorphosis after space travel would probably be more irksome than beneficial to an astronaut.
Picture it...none of your clothes would fit, your spatial awareness would be all out of whack. It’d be chaos!
Scientists have been aware of the nurturing effect space travel has on height for a while now, but they’ve never really focused on it because they felt that there was no need.
Recently; however, they’ve discovered that monitoring spinal activity via ultrasound scans could help build a greater understanding of the long-term effects of low gravity on the human body.
Space exploration organizations could then develop more effective rehabilitation programs for returning astronauts.
The ultrasound scans will be done by the astronauts themselves over the course of their stay at the International Space Station, allowing scientists to analyze the real-time effects of microgravity on the spine.
Typical ultrasounds aren’t articulate enough to map the complex structure of our spines, so a more advanced contraption was designed capable of thorough musculoskeletal imaging.
Being that it’s a fairly complicated device that must be used correctly in order to yield accurate results, all crew members are required to undertake a spinal ultrasound training program.
Everyone wants to be an astronaut when they’re a kid, exploring the great unknown, witnessing things only a handful of lucky people will ever get to, and an extra 2 inches in height only seems to sweeten the deal.
However, as we’ve already touched upon, there are some pretty debilitating repercussions.
Around half the astronauts that spend a significant amount of time in space report persistent pain in their lower back as the lean muscle tissue around their spine wastes away.
What’s more, ongoing studies claim that this lean muscle tissue isn’t easily rehabilitated, returnees only recouping roughly two-thirds of their original muscle function after 2 months.
To combat this, training programs for astronauts are now being supplemented with yoga and core-focused exercises normally recommended to Earth-bound sufferers of back pain.
So, to sum up, yes, you do indeed get taller in space, and astronauts can grow a full 2 inches if they spend long enough in orbit, but it’s not actually a good thing.
The Positive aspect of all this is that now we’re aware of the issues, we can start working on solutions, preparing ourselves for the longer space voyages of the future. Mars, here we come!