Shooting astronauts into space, then finding a safe way for those brave individuals to travel some 34 million miles is a complicated task. Who knew?
In a recent press release, National Aeronautics and Space Administration — commonly known as NASA — detailed some of the potential medical pitfalls associated with long space flight it's studying. The studies are conducted with a potential manned mission to Mars in mind, the red planet our closest neighbor at some 34 million miles away at its closest point to Earth.
A major concern is radiation, since, as NASA wrote, "crew members who travel beyond low-Earth orbit will be exposed to more and different types of radiation because they will not be protected by Earth’s magnetosphere." A study published at Scientific Reports by the National Space Biomedical Research Institute — and funded by NASA's Human Research Program — found it wasn't yet possible to determine if the cosmic ray radiation affects astronauts.
The researched studied both astronauts who had flown either on the Apollo moon missions or those who had flown in low orbit as well as astronauts who had not flown missions. And while it was not clear what affect cosmic rays might have had, the authors did write that the "results from the present study reveal that Apollo lunar astronauts have a significantly higher mortality rate due to [cardiovascular disease] than either the cohort of astronauts who never flew an orbital space mission or astronauts who never flew beyond [low-Earth orbit]."
NASA is working toward finding ways to protect astronauts from radiation that might cause health problems, including working toward developing more efficient shielding material for protection. The organization also carefully studies the health of astronauts aboard the International Space Station.
“There’s a lot of good science to be done on Mars, but a trip to interplanetary space carries more radiation risk than working in low-Earth orbit,” said Jonathan Pellish, a space radiation engineer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in a statement last year.
Even beyond the complication of keeping astronauts healthy on a mission to Mars, doubt has been cast on readiness of the program. A report Monday from the Verge pointed out that the "the rocket and spacecraft that the agency is building for the job face delays and budget problems."