Anyone who’s read James Michener’s novel “Space” probably shares my fear of solar storms. Michener writes about a final Apollo mission that ends badly because a solar fare erupts while astronauts are exploring the surface of the moon. So the headline “Massive solar storm speeds toward Earth” makes me want to drape myself in lead foil.
And it makes me wonder about the safety of the crew aboard the International Space Station, notwithstanding a NASA spokesman’s pronouncement that the space agency isn’t taking any extra precautions.
A NASA website, though, is more reassuring. An article titled “Who’s afraid of a solar flare?” explains that a flare ejects not just radiation but also hunks of magnetic field, which somehow deflect the radiation. So a solar storm actually reduces the radiation hitting the ISS. Even so, it’s not a good time for a space walk:
“No astronaut wants to encounter a swarm of high-energy solar protons. Severe storms are literally sickening; exposure causes vomiting, fatigue and low blood counts. Without medical attention, an astronaut suffering from radiation sickness could die. Now for the good news: few solar protons are able to penetrate the hulls of NASA spaceships. As long as astronauts stay inside, they’re safe.”
This is comforting. But isn’t “safe astronaut” a contradiction in terms?
— Eric Ringham