New effort aims to study health issues for private astronauts

New effort aims to study health issues for private astronauts

WASHINGTON — Medical researchers and commercial spaceflight advocates are working to launch a new effort to study the health issues and risks that space travel poses to a more diverse group of private astronauts.

Virgin Galactic plans to conduct the latest flight of its VSS Unity suborbital space plane on January 26 from Spaceport America in New Mexico. The Galaxy 06 mission will carry four passengers and two pilots, unlike previous flights that carried three passengers and an astronaut trainer. The company has not disclosed the identities of those customers.

Virgin Galactic’s flights, along with other suborbital flights from Blue Origin and several orbital missions from SpaceX, have allowed dozens of private astronauts into space over the past few years. Many of them may not have passed the rigorous medical standards used by NASA and other space agencies for professional astronauts.

Examples include Jon Goodwin, an 80-year-old man who flew on a Virgin Galactic mission last year despite suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Hayley Arceneaux, a member of the 2021 Inspiration4 Crew Dragon mission, is a cancer survivor with a prosthetic leg. Actor William Shatner became the oldest person in space when he flew on a Blue Origin suborbital flight in 2021 at the age of 90.

“There will be more and more,” former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said of such private astronauts during a two-day symposium in Tulsa, Oklahoma, this week. , a seminar he helped organize. “When we think about these events, we have to absolutely keep people safe.”

A concern he and others discussed at the meeting was the lack of information about health risks for a broader population than professional astronauts. Commercial spaceflight in the United States implements an “informed consent” system, in which future private astronauts are informed of various risks and then agree to accept these risks.

“If you’re going to get informed consent, we have to be able to do the ‘informed’ part,” Bridenstine said.

The workshop discussed a proposal outlined in a recent report to establish a Human Research Program for Spaceflight and Space Occupation Civilians (HRP-C). The effort, modeled on NASA’s own human research program, will collect medical data from spaceflight participants and conduct focused research on potential spaceflight risks.

The purpose of HRP-C is research, not regulation. “Our mission is to get as many people as possible into space based on strong science,” said Michael Schmidt, CEO of Solvaris Aerospace. “It’s never been about filtering what should go and what shouldn’t. Someone who should go.”

There have been some efforts to collect medical data from private astronauts, but they have been ad hoc. One such effort, called Enhanced Exploration Platforms and Simulation Definition (EXPAND), launched by the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH), began with the Inspiration4 mission.

TRISH’s Jennifer Fogarty told the symposium that the budget for the work was “slim.” The center is working to fill the space traveler demographic gap, including a new initiative this year targeting women. “For many women, describing to them the specific risks they face in the future is a real challenge,” she said.

HRP-C is investigating several methods of self-organization. George Nield, the former FAA deputy administrator for commercial space transportation who also participated in Blue Origin’s suborbital flights, suggested at the workshop that a nonprofit organization be established for HRP-C that would Can be supported by a combination of private and government funding. “It will focus on research and data sharing, not regulation,” he said.

“Although individuals or civilians who want to go into space are willing to take the risk, from a health perspective it becomes a Question.” The seminar ended. “We will continue to implement HRP-C to minimize risk.”

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