The commercialization of space is intensifying. The private sector is already planning for manufacturing, mining, and the construction of habitats, factories, and laboratories in space. To facilitate this new era of expansion, MITRE is working with government, academia, and industry to create a research roadmap to support the health of spaceflight participants.
Addressing the Health Risks of Space Travel
As opportunities emerge for thousands—perhaps even millions—of people to travel, live, and work in space in the coming decades, research is needed to ensure their health.
To support that goal, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) and MITRE collaborated to convene a workshop in May 2021 of experts from the space industry, government, and academia to develop a research framework for examining spaceflight participants (SFPs) in preflight, in-flight, and postflight operations and activities. The objectives of the research plan are to better understand and mitigate possible adverse outcomes and make space more accessible to civilians, such as those who might work in space to build space infrastructure, mine precious and rare metals, and manufacture items that cannot be made on Earth.
Currently, there are no standardized medical criteria for selecting people for space commerce roles, and there are little data on individuals of uncertain fitness entering space. To fill those gaps, the experts proposed a two-pronged research framework.
Research for Suborbital Spaceflight
For SFPs traveling in suborbital space, the experts recommended studying space motion sickness, sleep deprivation, anxiety, and stress. The focus of this research would be to identify the most effective methods for preventing or reducing these symptoms, such as through preflight training and/or medications.
To democratize access to space, the experts recommended studying the needs and requirements for transporting people with disabilities into suborbital space.
Study would also be needed to determine the impact of suborbital space travel on preexisting health conditions such as stabilized asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart conditions.
Additional study topics included the effects of acceleration forces and microgravity, cardiovascular responses to spaceflight, and the effects of spaceflight on the spine.
Research for Orbital Spaceflight and Beyond
The health picture for SFPs in orbital and beyond-low-Earth-orbit spaceflight—or even habitation in those realms—is more complex. For this environment, experts recommended long-term studies on the physiological and psychological impacts of microgravity, space-encountered radiation, “distance from Earth” phenomenon, isolation, and acceleration forces during launch and landing.
Additional research is recommended to identify preflight training and experiences that would best prepare SFPs with disabilities or underlying health conditions for orbital flight and beyond.
Need for Data
The experts also stressed the need to create a database capturing medical and health information on a diverse population of SFPs and their responses to space travel and habitation. They recommended the establishment of a public-private partnership to safeguard the information, support its analysis, and share anonymized findings with the partners for action toward enhanced health and safety protocols.
With advance research to identify risks and mitigations, and follow-up studies from actual spaceflight, experts believe the United States can set the standard for supporting the health of SFPs in the burgeoning commercial space arena.