Human spaceflight’s new era is fraught with medical and ethical questions

By Jurassic JennJun 14, 2024 12:38 PMScience
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Human spaceflight’s new era is fraught with medical and ethical questions
Human spaceflight’s new era is fraught with medical and ethical questions. Source: www.sciencenews.org

Recent developments in human spaceflight have brought forth a multitude of medical and ethical questions. Human bodies are undoubtedly affected by the unique conditions experienced during space travel, such as g-force acceleration, weightlessness, increased radiation, and the peculiar environment of low-Earth orbit. Researchers have long studied the impact of spaceflight on astronauts' health, with known issues including bone loss, increased cancer risk, vision impairment, weakened immune systems, and mental health challenges. However, the molecular-level effects have remained ambiguous. This was reported by SSPDaily.

To shed light on these questions, the Space Omics and Medical Atlas (SOMA) project has emerged. This extensive project, consisting of 26 papers published across various Nature journals, represents the largest database on aerospace medicine and space biology to date. SOMA aims to explore the health effects of spaceflight, particularly in the context of the emerging trend of crewed commercial missions conducted by companies like Axiom, Polaris Dawn, and SpaceX's Inspiration4. However, it raises crucial concerns since private space tourists are not subject to the rigorous health screenings required for professional astronauts, leading to unresolved medical, legal, and ethical dilemmas.

One significant long-term NASA study examined a pair of identical twins, Scott and Mark Kelly, to investigate the physiological, genetic, immune system, and mental reasoning differences resulting from Scott's 340-day stay on the International Space Station compared to Mark remaining on Earth. One intriguing finding was that Scott Kelly's telomeres, protective shoelace cap-like structures present at the end of DNA strands, actually lengthened during his time in space. Telomeres normally shorten as cells divide, with this process associated with aging. However, telomere elongation also indicates a potential cancer risk, as certain types of cancers "protect" telomeres or promote their elongation. Fortunately, upon returning to Earth, Scott Kelly's telomeres reverted to their preflight size.

Despite the significance of this study, further investigations have been limited by relatively small sample sizes. NASA has not repeated similar studies rigorously on subsequent astronaut crews. Nevertheless, researchers like Professor Eliah Overbey from the University of Austin, Texas, along with her colleagues, are collecting data related to telomere length and other molecular changes using SOMA. Interestingly, even short-duration trips like the three-day Inspiration4 journey result in temporal telomere lengthening, which then normalizes once back on Earth. Moreover, several other molecular changes observed in both short and long-term spaceflights exhibit similar patterns to those seen in the Twin Study.

While these insights require further exploration, particularly with longer missions to Mars or lunar bases, the current limitation remains the small sample sizes associated with private missions carrying only four crew members. The SOMA project aims to become a crucial data hub for commercial and government crewed missions, addressing pressing health uncertainties and spurring hypothesis generation.

The rise of private individuals venturing into space, however, brings forth ethical challenges. Unlike professional astronauts, commercial spaceflight participants are not subject to continuous health checks by specialized physicians. Instead, financial capability seems to be the primary requirement for participation. The absence of health requirements for private individuals stems from a Congressional moratorium on new safety regulations for commercial human spaceflight, which has been extended multiple times and is currently slated to expire in January 2025. This hinders the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), responsible for launch licenses, from mandating health screenings.

Dana Tulodziecki, a philosopher at Purdue University, highlights the contrast with other extreme endeavors like climbing Mount Everest, which require health certificates. Suggestions from the FAA recommend private astronauts consult physicians trained in space flight-related health issues before flying. However, there is no mechanism to ensure compliance, and the lack of strict regulations empowers individuals to seek alternate medical opinions.

Consequently, the ethical dilemmas associated with private space missions necessitate proactive consideration from lawmakers and authorities even before regulations expire. Urgent discussions are vital, as private space missions are already taking place, demanding a comprehensive approach to address the complex concerns arising from this evolving landscape.

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