Original Paper

Clinical Reviews in Bone and Mineral Metabolism

, Volume 5, Issue 4, pp 249-261

First online:

Adaptation of the Skeletal System During Long-Duration Spaceflight

  • Jean D. SibongaAffiliated withDivision of Space Life Sciences, Universities Space Research Association Email author 
  • , Peter R. CavanaghAffiliated withDepartment of Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine, University of Washington
  • , Thomas F. LangAffiliated withDepartment of Radiology and Joint Bioengineering Graduate Group, University of California
  • , Adrian D. LeBlancAffiliated withDivision of Space Life Sciences, Universities Space Research Association
  • , Victor S. SchneiderAffiliated withNASA Headquarters
  • , Linda C. ShackelfordAffiliated withHuman Adaptation & Countermeasures Division, NASA Johnson Space Center
  • , Scott M. SmithAffiliated withHuman Adaptation & Countermeasures Division, NASA Johnson Space Center
  • , Laurence VicoAffiliated withINSERM 890, IFR 143, Jean Monnet University

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This review will highlight evidence from crew members flown on space missions >90 days to suggest that the adaptations of the skeletal system to mechanical unloading may predispose crew members to an accelerated onset of osteoporosis after return to Earth. By definition, osteoporosis is a skeletal disorder—characterized by low bone mineral density (BMD) and structural deterioration—that reduces the ability of bones to resist fracture under the loading of normal daily activities. “Involutional” or age-related osteoporosis is readily recognized as a syndrome afflicting the elderly population because of the insipid and asymptomatic nature of bone loss that does not typically manifest as fractures until after age ∼60. It is not the thesis of this review to suggest that spaceflight-induced bone loss is similar to bone loss induced by metabolic bone disease; rather this review draws parallels between the rapid and earlier loss in females that occurs with menopause and the rapid bone loss in middle-aged crew members that occurs with spaceflight unloading and how the cumulative effects of spaceflight and ageing could be detrimental, particularly if skeletal effects are totally or partially irreversible. In brief, this report will provide detailed evidence that long-duration crew members, exposed to the weightlessness of space for the typical long-duration (4–6 months) mission on Mir or the International Space Station, (1) display bone resorption that is aggressive, that targets normally weight-bearing skeletal sites, that is uncoupled to bone formation, and that results in areal BMD deficits that can range between 6 and 20% of preflight BMD; (2) display compartment-specific declines in volumetric BMD in the proximal femur (a skeletal site of clinical interest) that significantly reduces its compressive and bending strength and may account for the loss in hip bone strength (i.e., force to failure); (3) recover BMD over a post-flight time period that exceeds spaceflight exposure but for which the restoration of whole bone strength remains an open issue and may involve structural alteration; and (4) display risk factors for bone loss—such as the negative calcium balance and down-regulated calcium-regulating hormones in response to bone atrophy—that can be compounded by the constraints of conducting mission operations (inability to provide essential nutrients and vitamins). The full characterization of the skeletal response to mechanical unloading in space is not complete. In particular, countermeasures used to date have been inadequate, and it is not yet known whether more appropriate countermeasures can prevent the changes in bone that have been found in previous flights. Knowledge gaps related to the effects of prolonged (≥6 months) space exposure and to partial gravity environments are substantial, and longitudinal measurements on crew members after spaceflight are required to assess the full impact on skeletal recovery.


Bone Mechanical unloading Weightlessness Bed rest Astronauts Cosmonauts