How Giraffes Helped Human Space Travel

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Should human space-travelers ever execute the long-awaited trek to Mars or another distant planet, they'll have baby giraffes to at least partially thank for their voyage.

Extraterrestrial weightlessness—the sensation of floating through space within the confines of one's craft—is both a blessing and a curse for astronauts during long missions, as Canada's Chris Hadfield says in this Youtube video. Hadfield notes that “bodies are designed to work with gravity. The blood is pushed to your feet and your heart squeezes it to your head, and if you take away gravity, your heart's gonna keep squeezing the blood up to your head ... but gravity doesn't push your blood down to your feet anymore, so your head's gonna inflate!”

Additionally, because the blood vessels in an astronaut's lower body aren't used to the same extent as they are on Earth, they gradually lose tone and start growing thinner. Upon re-entry to our planet's atmosphere, this becomes problematic, since the increased gravity rapidly fills the legs and ankles with blood, which results in fainting and dizzy spells.

Though one doesn't generally associate space travelers with fetal giraffes, the two demographics are faced with one remarkably-similar challenge: the rapid transition from a weightless environment to one of significantly greater gravitational pull.

In the 1980s, physiologist Alan Hargens and his colleagues at NASA noted that, shortly after birth, the blood vessels in young giraffes' legs quickly thicken, often enabling them to walk within their first hour of life outside of the womb.

This discovery helped improve the effectiveness of an invention known as the Lower Body Negative Pressure Device (LBNP), which works like an everyday vacuum cleaner to “apply negative pressure over the lower body.” This, in turn, simulates earth-like conditions and prevents homecoming astronauts from blacking out.

But infant giraffes don't hold a monopoly on inspiring NASA technology. As Wisconsin zoologist Neil Anderson explains below, their adult counterparts inspired several aspects of modern space suits:

For a much more technical account, check this out!