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Coming Down from Space: Addiction Faced by Astronauts

 

On July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 spacecraft landed on the moon, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first to step onto the lunar surface. The moon landing was a pinnacle in human achievement and technology, and a moment that has been written into the history books forever. It is not easy to become an astronaut: very few are selected by NASA and fewer yet are likely to go to space. Men and women are required to be elite individuals both in terms of athletic ability and educational knowledge. But there is a saying that goes ‘it is lonely at the top’, and many astronauts are left wondering what is next after orbiting the world.

Accomplishments of Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong

Buzz Aldrin was at the pinnacle of success when selected by NASA. Aldrin enrolled at West Point Military Academy and become a decorated fighter pilot after joining the Air Force. He flew 66 missions in Korea and then went to Germany to fly in the ‘Big 22’ fighter squadron. Later he graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he wrote his doctoral thesis on orbital rendezvous.

Fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong was an accomplished pilot in his own right, having also flown missions in Korea. Not only was he a pilot, he also helped to design planes. He worked for an organization that studied planes – this organization would go on to be acquired by NASA. In total, Armstrong flew over 200 different kinds of planes over the course of his storied career. He went on to complete a bachelor’s degree in Aeronautical Engineering and a Master’s Degree in Aerospace Engineering.

Common Injuries Sustained by Astronauts

Just like an elite athlete, injury comes with the territory of being an astronaut. The most common type of injuries among astronauts are musculoskeletal injuries. The physical demands of being an astronaut and working in zero gravity can take their toll on the body. Common musculoskeletal injuries include postural strain, poor body mechanics, spinal alignment problems and muscle shortening. All of these injuries and issues can be associated with the limitations of zero gravity and working in confined spaces. For Aldrin, it was back and neck pain.

As a result of these challenges, individuals like astronauts may start to rely on medications like ibuprofen to manage the pain. Ibuprofen is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication that when taken in proper doses has minimal addictive properties. However, when taken regularly over a prolonged period, a dependency has the potential to take hold. Addicts may start to rely on ibuprofen to numb out chronic pain and discomfort.

Depression

For Aldrin, his accomplishments overshadowed him. “I’d been to the moon…but what would I do next,” he said. After returning to earth, Aldrin expressed a desire to return to the Air Force as a test pilot, but instead he was put in charge of the flight school, an assignment he didn’t really want. Feeling shunned by the Air Force, Aldrin turned to alcohol as a way of coping with the discouragement he felt post moon landing. The 1970s were a decade lost to scotch. Aldrin tried his hand as a car salesman and went through two marriages, but he had a difficult time picking himself out of the depression he felt. What does one do after orbiting the world, doing spacewalks, or going to the International Space Station (ISS)? This is a question many astronauts face when returning to earth and for many, the experience on earth doesn’t quite measure up.

Final Thoughts

For those of us on the outside, it is hard to believe that these individuals struggle with things like depression, isolation, alcoholism, or drug use (prescription or otherwise). After all, they have everything and a lifetime full of experiences, they play professional sports, they’re in positions of power, or for people like Buzz Aldrin, they’ve literally been to the moon.

The question they ask is, ‘What is next?’ What can possibly top playing in the NHL, winning a gold medal at the Olympics, or orbiting the earth? Addiction does not discriminate among professions – those in the elite are just as susceptible as the vulnerable. “What’s next?” is also a question many average people face, just in a different context. The choices made in those times during and after times of adversity determine whether the seed of addiction is planted or if one rises above to conquer.

Sources

https://www.nasa.gov/centers/glenn/about/bios/neilabio.html
https://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/k-4/stories/nasa-knows/who-was-neil-armstrong-k4.html
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/0/astronaut-buzz-aldrin-battling-depression-alcoholism-mars-next/
https://www.addictionhope.com/ibuprofen/
https://www.webmd.com/pain-management/guide/musculoskeletal-pain

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