The problem with rocket R&D in the absence of comparable medical R&D

Later this week, SpaceX is launching a resupply mission to the International Space Station. I’ve got to admit, I’m a little bitter, and hoping for delays. This launch was originally scheduled for next week, and in an effort to use up hotel points that expire at the end of the month, Susie, Annie, and I scheduled a trip to Florida to see that launch and hopefully catch other things like abort tests and engine firings as SpaceX, SLS, and so many other companies race forward in their haste to get humans back on the moon, and eventually all the way to Mars.

Sometimes it feels a bit like all these companies are running with scissors. Sure, that’s one way to get the paper cut faster, but if you trip and fall really bad things can happen. Currently, the US is planning to land humans — specifically women — on the moon by 2024 and multiple nations are hoping to take advantage of the 2033 orbital alignment of Mars and Earth to send people on a shorter path to the Red Planet.

This fast track to Mars is concerning because we really don’t understand how to keep humans safe in space, and we’re still learning what factors we need to consider. It’s also not clear that the people pushing toward Mars are putting as much effort into doing the needed biomedical R&D as they are into hardware R&D.

As a case in point, I’d like to point you toward a new study in Science that looks in detail at how being in space for one year affected Astronaut Scott Kelly. According to an article in Wired Magazine, this study wasn’t originally part of the plan when Scott was preparing for launch. Rather, it was something put together when he asked about how he should answer media questions about him and his twin brother Mark Kelly, and what could be learned from having identical twin astronauts. According to Wired, the original answer NASA provided was that nothing was planned, and it was only after doing some asking around that a team of very interested researchers was put together and protocols were developed.

Credit: NASA

While I find this lack of long-term, systematic human medical research frustrating, at least a plan was put together, and now we have an opportunity to read the results… and the results aren’t good.

While in space, Scott Kelly experienced deterioration of his vision and his cognitive abilities that weren’t reversed by returning to Earth. Yes, going to space actually made him less smart and less able to see. While in space, and for a long time after, he also faced immune system challenges. Prior work has shown that astronauts see a 50% reduction in their bodies’ ability to kill cells that can cause leukemia. Studies of Scott’s genetics showed a fascinating, and somewhat concerning, activation of 10,000 of the 58,000 known genes in his genome. A good deal of this appears to be a stress response, and researchers point out that it is unclear what proportion of the stress response is due to being in space, and what is due to the side-effects of being on the ISS, like a lack of common comforts, and the terrible smell, noise, and sleep deprivation. It could be, his body was responding like that of anyone living in a harsh environment, and that we simply need to take better care of our astronauts by providing better living conditions. That said, we also don’t know what proportion of this gene activation is due to the human body really just not coping with microgravity. Whatever the cause, we need to pay attention because while most of those genes deactivated after return to earth, a cluster of those associated with immune function and DNA repair didn’t. That adds up to an added risk of cancer. Also affected were telomeres attached to his DNA, which were in many cases critically shorter than normal 6months after he returned to Earth. This increases risk of cancer.

You know what else raises the risk of cancer? Radiation. And radiation is something that astronauts will experience in unhealthy amounts for their entire journey to and stay on Mars. We still haven’t sorted out how to protect people from cosmic rays and other high energy particles, and this is a concern that I don’t see people working to address

Our bodies are designed for gravity, and everything from fluid drainage to blood flow works better when there is an outside force helping our bodies move around its contents. Sci Fi authors often refer to humans as “bags of water,” but it may be better to think of us as really complex distillation towers, with intricate plumbing systems. We are designed to live on a planet with a magnetic field and atmosphere that protects us from radiation. We are designed to live here, but we are driven to explore. I’m cool with that. I want to see people live out among the stars. But I don’t think we’re ready yet, and until we’re willing to spend as much on researching and mitigating the biological impacts of living in space as we are willing to spend on developing hardware to get us to space, there is going to be a disconnect between where our spacecraft can carry us, and where we can thrive.

I get that people are willing to die to see Mars, but let’s not make that the only option. OK?

This story is excerpted from today’s script for The Daily Space. Listen wherever you find podcasts!

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