The thought of long-duration space exploration may bring to mind scenes from the 1968 science-fiction movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.” In the film, a giant centrifuge creates artificial gravity and provides Earth-like conditions for crew members—simplifying daily tasks like working, eating and sleeping and allowing the human body to maintain a similar physiological state as it would on the ground.
As thrilling innovations such as this may someday surface in the future, ensuring the health of crew members today is a critical component of long-duration spaceflight. To further the current knowledge base and address the inherent risks, NASA plans to take an inward look at long-term human physiological responses to spaceflight.
NASA and the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) recently announced an agreement to send two crew members to the space station on a one-year mission. The other partners in the International Space Station Program also will work to ensure the success of this mission. The valuable scientific data collected will help send humans to new destinations, supporting the next generation of space exploration.
Expected to launch in spring 2015, a Russian Soyuz spacecraft will carry Scott Kelly of NASA and Mikhail Kornienko of Roscosmos to the space station for a one-year stay, the longest space mission ever assigned to a NASA astronaut.
A joint U.S./Russian research program is in the planning stages to make use of the unique assets of the space station. The goal is to obtain maximum benefits from this experience, which may involve other international partner science as well.
“This will build on the rich experience of long-duration flights, including four flights of a year or more conducted by our Russian colleagues on the Mir station,” says Dr. Michael Barratt, program manager for NASA's Human Research Program at the agency's Johnson Space Center in Houston. “We have progressed considerably in our understanding of the human physiology in space and in countermeasures to preserve bone, muscle and fitness since then. The space station program provides us a robust framework for international collaboration that enables us to realize tremendous returns from such an experience.”
Typical physiological responses of long-duration spaceflight include increased bone and muscle loss and decreased cardiovascular function and sensory motor performance. Data from the year-long expedition will provide information about crew performance and health, and aid in the reduction of certain human health risks associated with future exploration.
The detailed space station investigations for this expedition have not yet been finalized; NASA’s Human Research Program currently recognizes the high priority areas of study: effectiveness of microgravity countermeasures (risk solutions), vision and intracranial pressure changes, and behavioral health.
Specifically, this joint expedition will provide important insights into operational and scientific areas in human research in space and on Earth. Integrated scientific investigations between NASA and Roscosmos will combine resources to improve data sharing among space medical and human research communities, as well as help inform current assessments of crew performance and health and better determine and validate countermeasures to reduce the risks associated with future exploration as NASA plans for missions around the moon, to an asteroid and eventually to Mars.
Scientists have acquired enough data to begin to characterize the effects of six-month sojourns in weightlessness on astronauts’ bodies, and some of those effects appear not to have reached a new adapted state,” said John Charles, chief of the Human Research Program’s new International Science Office. “This one-year mission opportunity will show if the trends continue as before or if we are approaching any ‘cliffs’ that will require new treatments while providing new insights.”
Through valuable data collected from longer-duration missions and continued cooperation with international partners, NASA looks to continue to use the human element in its steps toward next generation space exploration.
Courtney Barringer and Laurie Abadie
Human Research Program Education and Outreach
NASA Johnson Space Center