Today I was playing Alien: Isolation and saw a poster regarding lice and how you ought to get checked to reduce the risk of spreading it. (I give you this context to let you know that I am generally thinking towards the future, but my question is in regards to small spaces in the context of space travel and should be applicable today.) My thought initially was, "Well that's a good idea, disease, infection, viruses, and things like lice must be a big problem due to the isolated and cramped nature of space travel". But then I thought that perhaps that was also working in its favor. Might it be easier to control if fewer people were coming and going and it remained "contained"?

Looking at this answer, I can see that there are considerable precautions to eliminating infection aboard the ISS. I think this is smart because it is very expensive to bring supplies up and much cheaper to make sure your astronauts are healthy before they go.

We can see that outbreaks happen in close public places, like Disneyland but also in more common places like a house with several people inside. I think we've all experienced this at some point; someone in your family or house gets sick and it jumps from person to person and can take a long time to "get rid of".

This is my question: is a disease/virus/infection more hazardous in small spaces like the ISS or any other space vehicle, or does the isolation make it potentially easier to deal with? I'm not interested in the economic costs, because I think that it is rather obvious that is far more expensive to have an infected crew than a healthy one. I'm only interested in the potential risks to the health of the crew for current and future spaceflight.

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    $\begingroup$ "is a disease/virus/infection more hazardous in small spaces like the ISS or any other space vehicle" I recall reading the results of experiments that suggested a variety of microbes reproduced and grew in 0 G like they were on a combination of Spanish Fly and Super Grow. $\endgroup$ Jan 30, 2015 at 18:33
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    $\begingroup$ Note that there's also microgravity and increased radiation environmental factors here, potentially making pathogenic viral strains and bacteria more virulent / potent. See e.g. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC419922 Related here: Pathogenic microorganisms and antibiotics in space and How does increased environmental radiation affect medication potency, long and short term? (sadly both unanswered, just exposing them hoping they get some). Re contagion, also search site for ISS gym fungi. $\endgroup$
    – TildalWave
    Jan 30, 2015 at 18:38
  • $\begingroup$ An airplane hosts hundreds of people everyday from all over the world, that's where diseases might spread. The ISS is probably more sterile than any everyday environment you find yourself in. Astronauts are selected for their good health, and NASA engineers wear blue gloves and funny hats when they touch things like the Orion spaceship. I think the ISS is a very safe place, unless it suddenly explodes or goes blackout. I've never heard of an astronaut with a cold in space. I've heard that NASA understandably has some privacy policy about the personal health of their astronauts. $\endgroup$
    – LocalFluff
    Jan 30, 2015 at 19:24
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    $\begingroup$ @LocalFluff There has been a case of a head-cold spreading to other astronauts. See: the answer linked in the question above. Also, the question isn't really about its likelihood or the potential risk of it happening, just the seriousness of it if it DOES occur and whether or not the cramped space is working against it. Of course, other systems come into play, which is why I asked here and not, perhaps, in a health related SE $\endgroup$ Jan 30, 2015 at 20:09

1 Answer 1


A space station has the advantage that it can tightly control what comes in. It is the perfect quarantine. Unlike the cargo hold of a ship, every gram of weight is meticulously accounted for. Unfortunately, there's no way to fully clean a human (without killing them) and once you've sealed them inside the space station, the advantages end.

Living on a space station would share in common the same health risks as being in other sealed environments, but much much worse. There's even a term for it, BRI or Building Related Illnesses aka Sick Building Syndrome. One of the biggest problems is air circulation.

In a plane or poorly ventilated office, the air can stagnate. You're literally breathing each other's air giving air and particle (sneezing, coughing) borne contagions a better chance to reach more victims.

The HVAC system itself can be a source of health problems if it is poorly maintained. It can accumulate and spread smoke, mold, chemicals, and germs.

Everything smells, and some smells can hurt you. You, your shoes, your clothes, the wood in the chair you're in, the plastic in your computer, the solvents used to clean it, paint, perfumes, food, mold... this is known as "outgassing" and normally its at such low volume and the ventilation is good enough it just dissipates. In a poorly ventilated office building this is bad. In a sealed space station this can be debilitating. NASA employs people whose job is to literally ensure that nothing will smell too bad in space.

Airplanes and buildings can refresh their air from the outside. With no outside air supply, a space station must recycle all its air requiring very good filters and CO2 scrubbers. If they degrade, all these problems become more acute.

Having a cold in space would probably be horrible for the human, and not good for the technology. It's worse because being in space messes up the immune system. I can't imagine what would happen to the excess sinus fluid in your head in zero-gravity, but it can't be nice. On top of that, NASA can't afford a day off, you have to keep working. Sneezing and coughing will produce a fine mist of droplets which will continue until they impact something: a fellow crew member, a surface, a piece of electrical equipment it might short out... This article goes into some detail about being sick in space.

One of the simplest ways to cure BRI is to leave the building. Not possible on a space station.

The typical grimy space station in sci-fi movies makes this all much, much worse. It's probably old, poorly maintained and filthy (a lot of that being human skin and oils). The cargo is never meticulously checked, and the humans rarely undergo quarantine or any sort of scrubbing. The Alien series even has a cat. On the up side, sci-fi spaceships are typically much, much, much larger than real world spaceships and have far more air volume.


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