Women's Bodies Better Suited for the Horrors of Space, Study Finds

Sorry, fellas: it seems that women may be slightly better at tolerating all the hostile, invisible terrors of traveling through space than men, according to new research.

The findings, as detailed in a study published in the journal Nature Communications, are preliminary, but could be a breakthrough in the still-little-understood area of how human biology stands up to the effects of prolonged spaceflight.

Our warm, fleshy forms are pretty far out of their element off-Earth. There's virtually no gravity in space, which causes conundrums in everything from staying in shape to going to the bathroom. There's no atmosphere to protect us from harsh cosmic radiation. And, thanks to microgravity conditions, the precious fluids in our bodies can flow improperly, creating potentially dangerous imbalances.

Simply put, human bodies are put through enormous stresses off world, and debate rages on whether our brittle biomechanics could survive long-term space missions like a trip to Mars.

Now, in one of the most comprehensive studies on the subject to date, researchers found that humans are remarkably good at recovering from space missions — so perhaps conquering the cosmos is still on the table, after all.

"There's no showstopper," said study lead author Christopher Mason, professor of physiology and biophysics at Weill Cornell Medicine, as quoted by The Washington Post. "There's no reason we shouldn't be able to safely get to Mars and back."

Most of the data used in the study comes from the all-civilian spaceflight mission Inspiration4 in 2021, operated by SpaceX. The four-person crew, none of whom were professional astronauts, provided extensive biological samples taken before, during, and after their three days in orbit.

These samples are considered more representative of the average human than what could be supplied by elite, highly trained spacefarers — but, rounding things out, the researchers also examined data from 64 NASA astronauts.

By looking at gene activity and immune system responses in the biosamples, the researchers found that women astronauts recovered quicker from spaceflight conditions after returning to Earth than men did. Males in general, the researchers wrote, "appear to be more affected by spaceflight for almost all cell types and metrics."

Exactly why is unclear, but Mason speculated it could be because women are able to withstand the stresses of pregnancy, which in turn allows them to "tolerate large changes in physiology and fluid dynamics," per WaPo.

One of the changes that researchers noted was that human chromosomes' telomeres, which shorten as we grow older, actually lengthened even after just three days in space. They also found that parts of the immune system kicked into a higher gear, with a spike in anti-inflammatory proteins called cytokines, while the genes responsible for encoding virus-fighting antigens known as leukocytes were somewhat suppressed.

Still, on the whole, things are looking pretty good for human astronauts generally, and not just the ladies. Most of the changes that human bodies undergo in space, the researchers found, reverse within just three months of returning to Earth.

What this means for astronauts who don't have the chance for intermittent respite on their home planet is less clear, and it'll be something that scientists will have to puzzle out if humanity is going to realize its heady space ambitions. Advanced pharmaceuticals developed using the wealth of new data, the researchers suggest, could help astronauts keep their bodily systems in balance.

"We will need all possible biomedical data to make precision medicine for future crews a reality and to prepare for longer missions to the Moon and Mars," Mason said.

More on space: A Brief List of Horrifying Things Space Travel Does to the Human Body