Scientists, engineers, educators, physicians and space explorers from around the world are convening this month at Rice University in Houston at the annual International Space Medicine Summit. This summit provides an opportunity for space professionals in the international community to identify space medicine research goals and national policies that foster collaboration, communication and cooperation between spacefaring nations. This year's summit occurs at an ideal time, as the International Space Station partnership moves forward with its plan to put an American astronaut and Russian cosmonaut in space for an entire year.
Between 1987 and 1999, four Russian cosmonauts spent a year or more consecutively in space. Now, for the first time, an American astronaut, Scott Kelly, will be joining that exclusive club, as he and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko inhabit the space station for an entire year beginning in 2015. These two explorers will live on the space station for twice as long as a typical space station crew member. Researchers expect the one-year mission to yield beneficial knowledge on the medical, psychological and biomedical challenges explorers may face as they venture to an asteroid, Mars and beyond. This mission will also provide an additional opportunity for cooperation between research teams around the world.
To gain knowledge about how humans live and work in space from a one-year mission, NASA and the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) are evaluating a long list of potential investigations. Their goal is to determine which studies provide the most value in the joint effort to reduce the human risks of space exploration. Other international space agencies have the opportunity to weigh in as well, including participation in implementation and joint working groups where mutual strategy sharing contributes toward a more robust expedition. Collectively, these bilateral and multilateral efforts are expected to create a collaborative template for future exploration and lead to strengthened international partnerships.
"The International Space Station is the most advanced and well-equipped research laboratory ever put into orbit," says Dr. John Charles, chief of the International Science Office of NASA's Human Research Program at the agency's Johnson Space Center in Houston. "But its full utilization requires the combined efforts of [its entire] member partners. No single partner nation has all of the resources needed, but through their combined efforts, they can assure that enough crew members can participate in the most appropriate investigations with the minimum amount of effort and without duplicating instrumentation."
Charles explains, "Only in this way can the International Space Station be successful in reducing the risks to human space exploration beyond low-Earth orbit by the end of its useful lifetime."
Between the U.S. and Russia, there are three approaches for bilateral collaboration: joint investigations with co-principal investigators from both nations, where the crew members perform the same investigations; cross-participation, where the crew members participate in the other nation's investigations; and data sharing, where crew members participate in their own national investigation, but the data are shared with the other nation. The chosen investigations, in this case, had to include a focus on exploration - a criterion that all U.S. human research investigations on the space station currently meet. Additionally, NASA sought studies that were modifiable and easily ready for flight. Consideration was also given to previously flown investigations, preferably conducted by Kelly, who has already logged more than 180 days in space.
The evaluation of candidate investigations for the one-year mission began in 2012, when NASA's Human Research Program (HRP) and its Russian counterpart in Moscow, the Institute of Biomedical Problems (IBMP), began exchanging lists of potential research opportunities. Charles reported that, starting with a pool of 33 U.S. and Russian studies, approximately half had been flown before and approximately one-third had been previously performed by Kelly, thus permitting a direct comparison of the effects of six months in space versus one year.
Final selections from Russia will include up to 24 investigations and NASA HRP will select up to 18 investigations. For comparison, a typical U.S. Operating Segment crew member has 9 to 10 HRP studies that are planned for a six-month mission on the space station. Other possible partner investigations are being assessed.
The specific investigations are still under evaluation for flight-readiness and mutual compatibility, but each investigation selected will be in one or more of these categories:
- Risks not yet resolved, such as changes in the eye during spaceflight - a phenomenon reported by more than 30 percent of American astronauts. Recent findings indicate there are structural changes to the eyes of some long-duration astronauts (those in space for six consecutive months or longer). This is possibly related to an increase in intracranial pressure, or increased fluid pressure in the head and spine, which may be due to changes in body fluid volume and distribution.
- Research into the physiological cost of spaceflight adaptation, including changes in body chemistry and metabolism, immune function, cardiovascular capacity, bone architecture and integrated balance and movement by the nervous system. Long-term exposure to weightlessness causes a physiological, multi-system adaptation in crew members. Changes in sensory-motor, muscle, cardiovascular, locomotor and postural functions affect the ability of crew members to move and function upon immediate return to a gravitational environment. Scientists would like to assess functional abilities, physical performance and the state of the physiological systems in crew members shortly after their return to Earth. The intent is to develop methods for rapid evaluation of these functions, create a time course for recovery, and develop field technologies that allow crew members to assess their own physiological changes. Autonomous medical testing is crucial for crew members in successfully carrying out tasks upon terrestrial landings, as well as recovering and adapting to their environment.
- Evaluation of countermeasures, such as improved exercise protocols to maximize the benefit (reducing the negative physiological effects of spaceflight, such as bone loss and muscle atrophy) while minimizing the crew members' time required.
- Behavior and performance, especially sleep and wake cycles, cognitive performance, and team efficiency, including brain imaging pre-and post-flight. This research also looks at behavioral issues associated with isolation and confinement. Assessing how confinement affects individual and group performance will be crucial for long duration missions and lunar and planetary expeditions.
The investigations performed on this one-year space station mission will provide results that further our knowledge of human health and performance in space and on Earth. The opportunity to share those findings with research teams from around the world and at conferences, such as the annual International Space Medicine Summit, will demonstrate the achievement of the one-year mission and strengthen international partnerships through continued innovative collaboration.