Imagine: You're a crew member aboard the first manned mission to Mars, months into transit to the Red Planet. You get a horrid headache, hindering your duties on the spaceship. What do you do? Well, you do the responsible thing and consult a fellow astronaut. Quick fix: she suggests you swallow a couple of painkillers.
Worse than that; what if you cut yourself while carrying out an experiment? Your wound becomes infected and you start to feel sick. The ship's doctor puts you on a course of antibiotics.
Despite the painkillers or antibiotics, your condition doesn't improve, resulting (at best) in prolonged bed rest, or (at worst) death. The nearest hospital, after all, is 50 million miles away.
What went wrong? The drugs didn't work.
This is a rather dramatized version of a recent finding by NASA-funded research: medicines appear to degrade rapidly when stored in space, putting a huge question mark over long-term astronaut health care.
For the experiment, project leader Brian Du, of the Wyle Engineering Group and colleagues from the University of Texas, Universities Space Research Association and NASA Johnson Space Center, sent four medical kits to the International Space Station (ISS), pictured below.
Each kit was identical, containing medicines commonly used by astronauts in space. Another four identical kits were stored at NASA Johnson Space Center to act as the control.
The ISS medical kits were flown in space for different time intervals ranging from 13 days to 28 months.
The study, published in the AAPS Journal, concluded that "the number of medications failing API [active pharmaceutical content] requirement increased as a function of time in space, independent of expiration date." In short, the longer the medication spent in space, the less effective it became. It degraded far quicker than the control medicines left on the ground.