Bridging the Gap: NASA Studies the Human Body in Space for One Year to Extrapolate for Missions to Mars

Before we can run or jump, we walk. Before sending humans to Mars, NASA must understand how the human body is affected by living and working in space. Typical missions to the International Space Station last six months. A round-trip mission to Mars could last three years.  Do the effects of being in space change over time? NASA is asking the scientific community to propose research that will help bridge the gap in our knowledge regarding long-term experiences in space.

Call for Proposals to Address Physiological and Psychological Effects of Spaceflight

NASA’s Human Research Program is now soliciting proposals for research that, when combined with ongoing NASA studies, could enable safer and more effective travel to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit. NASA is seeking research proposals in seven topic areas.   Such research will help NASA establish a baseline for proposed deep space missions up to 400 days in length as well as understand, prevent, diagnose, treat, mitigate, and cure the potential health effects of prolonged spaceflight. Interested scientists and researchers will find a detailed description of the research emphases, as well as the proposal process and awards, on the NSPIRES website.

“To draw any conclusions about the cumulative effects of exposure to space, we need to observe more astronauts spending larger amounts of time in the space environment,” said John Charles, Ph.D., associate director for Exploration Research Planning of the Human Research Program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.  “Scientists can use the information to predict physical and behavioral health trends.”

Research from the selected proposals is expected to build upon data collected during the first one-year mission when Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko spent nearly a year in space. Additional space station studies, supplemented with research conducted at analogs on Earth, will allow NASA to accumulate a more comprehensive biomedical, behavioral, and performance health dataset.  NASA plans to use the findings to support long-term missions that will reach new milestones in human achievement as astronauts forge a path to Mars. The findings may also support innovative diagnostic and behavioral approaches on Earth; for example, research in team problem-solving skills has the potential to be applied to all personnel involved in any long-duration mission (operational and mission control team members as well as spaceflight crew members) and to any team involved in critical decision-making processes.

Proposals are due January 9, 2018, and NASA expects in late summer 2018 to select 15 to 18 proposals for grants with a maximum duration of seven years.

Connecting the Dots via Multiple Studies in Multiple Missions

Soliciting research for future one-year missions lays the groundwork for exploration missions and will enable NASA to begin planning and preparation for a proposed program of multiple concurrent missions. Researchers and scientists submitting proposals should consider a robust program that could include as many as 30 astronauts: 10 to conduct shorter missions of up to two months, 10 as part of standard six-month missions, and 10 one-year missions in space. An additional 18 research subjects are proposed for Earth-based analog studies (at planned lengths of four months, eight months, and one year).

With information gained from the selected studies, NASA aims to address five hazards of human space travel: space radiation, isolation and confinement, distance from Earth, gravity fields (or lack thereof), and hostile/closed environments that pose great risks to the human mind and body in space.  Analyzing the experiences of multiple astronauts at varying durations could potentially close critical gaps in current scientific understanding.  As NASA moves into a proving ground of missions near the Moon, the agency would continue to test capabilities. NASA could then extrapolate trends from six months out to two or three years, the expected duration of a typical mission to Mars.  Ultimately, such studies could enable NASA to develop and test technologies and countermeasures to protect the health and safety of crew members making history on interplanetary expeditions.

When the day comes for humans to launch on a journey to Mars, humanity will take another giant leap.  The knowledge gained from this research could give NASA a running start.

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NASA’s Human Research Program (HRP) is dedicated to discovering the best methods and technologies to support safe, productive human space travel. HRP enables space exploration by reducing the risks to astronaut health and performance using ground research facilities, the International Space Station, and analog environments. This leads to the development and delivery of an exploration biomedical program focused on: informing human health, performance, and habitability standards; the development of countermeasures and risk mitigation solutions; and advanced habitability and medical support technologies. HRP supports innovative, scientific human research by funding more than 300 research grants to respected universities, hospitals, and NASA centers to over 200 researchers in more than 30 states.

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