Della’s Return to Earth’s Gravity

I’ve touched on this topic on my Tumblr a little, but I wanted to talk about it more in-depth here.

Della’s been on the Moon for a long time – ten, or more likely, eleven years – and her body has grown quite accustomed to only weighing one sixth of what she would on Earth. 

After a bit of research, I’ve found several articles (linked below) that detail the negative physical effects on astronauts who spend a significant amount of time in space and then return to Earth. 

Grant it, these articles discuss what it’s like to spend months or up to a year in microgravity, floating around in a space station. Della hasn’t been floating around since there is noticeable gravity on the Moon, so on the one hand, the effects on her body might not be as severe. On the other hand, they could be worse since she’s been gone for over a decade. Since NASA has yet to set up an outpost on the Moon – something that apparently they are hoping to do – we don’t yet know the effects a prolonged stay on the Moon might have on an Earthling.

Another important disclaimer is that this is a cartoon, and writers tend to pick and choose how close or far from reality they want to be for the needs of the story. Sometimes they really apply their research, such as when they worked closely with the Amputee Coalition to create Della and make sure they got her movements right. Other times, they only slightly pay attention to scientific details, such as when they addressed Della’s lack of oxygen, water, and food by having her chew a practically magical piece of gum that Gyro created.

And other times they completely ignore certain facts, such as having Della repair her rocket with gold which would melt upon reentering Earth’s atmosphere, or having her walk around without a space suit with all that radiation from the Sun and extreme temperatures on the Moon’s surface (-280 to 260 degrees Fahrenheit, -173 to 127 degrees Celsius). 

All this to say, the writers aren’t likely to give Della every one of these physical problems when she gets home, especially considering they didn’t have her freeze or fry the moment she removed her space helmet. I’d be surprised if they didn’t include any of these issues, though. 

First things first, Della might have brittle bones like an osteoporosis patient and be prone to fractures.

In microgravity, bones lose density at a rate of 1-2% per month, especially in the legs. Our bones break down and rebuild themselves constantly on Earth, but without the weight of gravity, bones have no reason to stay strong. Calcium leaks out through urine, and it takes astronauts two months on Earth for every one month in space to get their bones back to normal. They work out on the space station two hours per day to slow down the process of bone loss, but they still need to rehabilitate when they come home. 

Della might not be in microgravity, but she’s only had one sixth of her normal Earth weight all this time. There hasn’t been much weight on her leg. Hopefully Gyro’s Oxy-Chew provides plenty of calcium for her, especially considering female birds periodically lay eggs even when the eggs aren’t fertilized, which would also draw calcium from her bones to form eggshells. Gosh, I hope for her sake unfertilized eggs are smaller than fertilized ones. 

Anyway, all her hard work trying to rebuild the rocket would also help slow down her rate of bone loss, but it may not be enough.

Another effect of prolonged time in microgravity astronauts experience is disorientation. Their brains lose track of up and down, so they’re pretty dizzy when they get back down to Earth. This wouldn’t happen to Della, since there’s definitely an up and down on the Moon. 

She could, however, still be very faint because of a drop in blood pressure, and need a transfusion of saline to bring her blood pressure back up after landing.

Blood rushes to the head shortly after launching. When an astronaut returns to Earth’s gravity, the increased gravitational pull causes blood to move downward and pool in the lower extremities, depriving the brain of the oxygen it needs and causing slight cognitive decline. Della’s heart would have to work much harder to pump blood to her brain back on Earth after such a long time on the Moon. One astronaut reported having to wear a pressure suit under his clothes when he returned to Earth to regulate his circulation while readjusting to Earth’s gravity. 

Like many astronauts, Della may not be able to land her rocket smoothly or even remain conscious after reentering the atmosphere. She may be in for a rough landing and need immediate medical attention. In the following weeks, she might need a wheelchair… and definitely a shower chair, so she doesn’t hit her head or fracture a bone fainting in the shower.

Aside from blood pressure issues causing dizziness and fainting, Della may also have decreased muscle mass.

Astronauts can lose 20-40% of their muscle mass and function during long space trips, and just like with bone mass, legs are the most affected. It took astronaut Bob Thirsk six weeks to regain his muscle mass after landing. Della has been working out on the Moon, but it’s hard to know if it will be enough. As I’ve said, she’s going to suddenly be six times heavier when she lands. It could even take more effort to breathe. One astronaut reports that on his first night back on Earth, he felt like he was glued to the bed. Of course, that was returning from microgravity. 

Astronauts are very wobbly on their feet once they arrive home, and have to relearn how to walk with one person standing on each side of them, ready to catch them when they fall. Even without the symptom of disorientation, Della could have her work cut out for her between bone loss, muscle loss, blood pressure issues, and being an amputee. 

While Della was able to get around on the Moon really well, it’s likely only having one sixth of her usual weight on her prosthesis was a blessing at first. She’s had more weight than that on her residual limb and prosthesis before, carrying giant pieces of debris to rebuild the rocket, but it was for shorter periods of time. The increased pressure on her residual limb in her makeshift prosthesis on Earth could be very painful if she has to stand or walk for longer periods of time, and she may need a new prosthetic leg custom-made by an actual prosthetist. 

Della could struggle with overall soreness, especially in her neck and back, having to support the full weight of her head again. She may become very aware of her bill and tongue and have slight trouble speaking clearly at first, as one astronaut said that he hadn’t realized he’d gotten used to talking with a weightless tongue and immediately felt the weight of his lips and tongue again when he landed. Della’s case wouldn’t be as severe as his though, since she’s accustomed to the Moon’s gravity. 

Her remaining foot might hurt, too as she adjusts to her Earth weight. One astronaut said that without calluses on his feet, he felt like he was walking on coals. Della would have some calluses on her foot, but imagine the ache of walking around with so much additional weight. 

Nearly half of astronauts also report blurry vision. This condition is now called space flight-associated neuro-ocular syndrome. Depending on the cause, Della may or may not deal with this issue. Some theories as to why astronauts in microgravity develop temporary vision issues are that blood pressure changes affect the vessels behind the eyes, or that the abnormal flow of spinal fluid in microgravity causes swelling in the optic nerve.

There are also some more frightening effects of prolonged time in space.

These include premature aging, carotid arteries (which can lead to heart disease or stroke), and major changes to metabolism. A study of identical twin astronauts revealed significant DNA damage, possibly due to radiation, such as shortened telomeres (stretches of DNA associated with a person’s lifespan). I honestly can’t imagine the writers addressing any of these issues. If Della can survive on the Moon for over a decade with only one piece of gum, the writers aren’t going to have her suddenly develop heart disease or cancer when she gets home. 

It’s difficult to guess how closely the writers have stuck to the testimonies of astronauts, but I imagine Della at least being a bit weak and wobbly when she arrives home, which could make it even more difficult for Scrooge and Donald to come to terms with her amputation. Grounded by gravity, she may have to work really hard to prove to them that her disability isn’t actually going to disable her.

I can almost hear Della arguing with them now: “No seriously guys, it’s just that gravity is dumb. I got around on the Moon just fine for over a decade! Just you wait, I’m gonna be up and running in no time!”

Hopefully we’ll get to see how this all plays out in May! And if not, hopefully by the end of the year! 

Astronauts Returning to Earth Face Tolls to Their Bodies
Canadian Astronaut Wrestles with Gravity after Spaceflight
Weightlessness and its Effect on Astronauts
NASA Study Highlights Profound Effects of Space Travel on Human Body
Watch Astronaut Scott Kelly Struggle to Walk on Earth after a Year in Space

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