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Center Snapshot: Ram Tripathi
Center Snapshot: Ram Tripathi Image above: Ram Tripathi has been named a Fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science for his work in radiation. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

By: Jim Hodges

The attention is on building a rocket and testing a space capsule.

Astronauts ride into space on the capsule. And the rocket gets them there.

Besides, everybody likes a fireworks show.

But in offices all over NASA, and certainly all over Langley, researchers toil out of sight, and largely out of the public mind, on things like protecting the astronauts who will ride the rockets. That research is every bit as important as the sound and fury of a space exploration program.

They are places like the second floor of Building 1205, where Ram Tripathi works as part of a group trying to protect those astronauts from the kind of radiation they have never experienced.

Tripathi is a quiet, private man until it's time to talk about work. Then he becomes animated, even effusive when the conversation turns to something he has studied for more than two decades, since emigrating from India to, first, the University of Kansas, then California-Berkeley. He led research activities in the United Kingdom, Belgium and Germany before coming to Langley.

"It's a very exciting and challenging time for radiation," said Tripathi, who was recently rewarded for his work in the area when he was named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Presentation of the award is scheduled for February 18 in Vancouver, British Columbia.

The challenge has some knowns, but a larger collection of unknowns with which to cope, depending on where astronauts are sent into space, and how long they are expected to stay. Even when they go, because radiation can be a function of solar activity, which is uneven and unpredictable.

Studying radiation has been around for years, but on a low burner. The flame has been turned up, now that exploration beyond the moon has is powering NASA's space program.

"So far, attention has been focused on low-Earth orbit," Tripathi said.

"Leaving low-Earth orbit, everything has to be new, and that's what's so exciting. One of the real challenges is how to deal with long-term radiation exposure to tissues because there is no real accurate information about that now. Long-duration exposure, even in as low levels as X-rays, continuous exposure, what should we do?"

Finding out is one of the "grand challenges" outlined by NASA's Office of the Chief Technologist.

Studies have gone past mere survival in a radioactive environment to longer-term effects over the lifetime of the astronaut. And where once there was a question of being able to procreate after long-term exposure to radiation, now there is an additional look at genetic mutations that might be a result of that exposure.

How might that affect future generations spawned by people who have been exposed?

A thought has been a radiation filter to mitigate the impact. Now "the best strategy is to not allow the radiation to go there," Tripathi said.

"Divert and deflect it because of biological uncertainties."

How? It's still being worked out.

"But we have to do something with tissues also," Tripathi said of a part of the program on which he is working.

Perhaps the answer is conditioning the tissue to accept some radiation without long-term adverse effects. Perhaps it is something else. Decades of study have been done. More study is ahead, but with greater emphasis and urgency.

With astronauts expected to be on a planet or asteroid for months, and perhaps with personnel rotations for years, NASA is dealing with something that is completely unknown.

"We know what the radiation levels will be," Tripathi said. "What we do not know is the long-term effects will be."

Radiation researchers are trying to change that.

As with much of NASA's technology, the impact could reach into space, then back to Earth's hospitals, where shielding and conditioning the area around tumors could help in treating those tumors with radiation therapy without impacting surrounding tissue.

"This is one of the immediate applications," Tripathi said. "It has a lot of on-Earth applications."

It's another challenge, and another reason to be excited. Tripathi's face lights with the thought of each of use, each new technological development.

And with mention of the award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"I'm humbled and honored to receive this award," he said. "This is not only recognition for me but for the work we do here."

It's work that, for a change, takes its place in the public consciousness, alongside the sound and fury of launching a rocket into space.

The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center
Editor & Curator: Denise Lineberry
Managing Editor: Jim Hodges
Executive Editor & Responsible NASA Official: Rob Wyman