Experiment Tests New Dental Fillings for Astronauts

What do you do if you have a dental emergency and the nearest dentist is over 250 miles away? What if the dentist is actually 30 million miles away? That’s the situation that could be facing astronauts on a potential trip to Mars. Before we start sending people on distant trips, we have to figure out a way for them to deal with dental emergencies.

Experience with Antarctic research stations and military personnel shows us that dental emergencies occur regularly. For Antarctic research in the 1960s, dental problems were the second most common medical event, after traumatic injury. In the military, dental emergencies accounted for 7 to 9% of medical evacuations. Overall, dental emergencies occur about once every five person-years, with the need for evacuation occuring about once every 55 person-years. Being unprepared for a dental emergency could disable a crewman or even lead to their death.

That’s why a new experiment recently delivered to the International Space Station is helping astronauts develop a better solution to dental problems.

Fillings Lost in Space

(Fillings) Lost in Space

Despite the experience in the military and Antarctic research, there have been relatively few dental emergencies in space. The big difference is the number of people and the length of the missions. Where thousands of military personnel may be deployed for years at a stretch (with duty rotations, but not always opportunities to visit home), only a few hundred people have visited the International Space Station, and few of them for very long. The longest is just under a year. So although the ISS has been continuously occupied since 2000, we have only about a hundred person-years aboard it, and in short enough stints that there haven’t been very many dental emergencies.

However, one of the most recent highlighted the fact that we don’t have a good dental solution should these emergencies arise. A few years ago, an astronaut on the ISS lost a filling. US astronaut Terry Virts trained in emergency dental procedures in 2013, and attempted a repair. However, the filling didn’t bond properly to the tooth and came out the next day.

A New Filling Material

In response to this, a Tennessee high school student proposed an experiment to determine a better solution to dental emergencies in space. She proposed that astronauts might use a UV-activated dental glue to patch teeth.

To test the bonding strength of the material, the glue will be squirted on broken teeth, then the teeth exposed to UV light, which cures the material. However, there is a risk that the process of polymerization may not work as well, with air bubbles trapped in the glue in microgravity, low-pressure conditions.

But if the experiment works, astronauts will have a better way to address chipped teeth, lost fillings, and other minor dental problems on the ISS, and, more importantly, during longer-range trips such as to Mars. Although we could technically launch a spacecraft that could reach Mars in about 40 days, most plans call for a trip of about 300 days to get there. Astronauts would either then take the trip back after a short stay, or just remain on Mars. In either case, the mission gives ample time for things to go wrong.

Hopefully, this experiment will give us an ample solution in case they do.

Down-to-Earth Fillings for San Jose

Although human experience with fillings in space may be spotty, modern dentistry has an excellent track record with modern dental materials. New dental materials are not only highly durable, they are also biocompatible and can improve your overall health, as well as your dental health.

If you are looking for a filling in the San Jose area, we can help. Please call (408) 354-5600 today for an appointment with Dr. Nancy Nehawandian at Top Down Dental in Los Gatos.