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“Houston We Have a Podcast” is the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center from Houston, Texas, home for NASA’s astronauts and Mission Control Center. Listen to the brightest minds of America’s space agency – astronauts, engineers, scientists and program leaders – discuss exciting topics in engineering, science and technology, sharing their personal stories and expertise on every aspect of human spaceflight. Learn more about how the work being done will help send humans forward to the Moon and on to Mars in the Artemis program.
On Episode 128 Jason Weeks and Steve Platts discuss the ways NASA is collecting radiation data to better understand the risks and possible mitigation strategies for humans traveling through deep space. This is the last in a six part series on NASA’s Human Research Program. This episode was recorded on December 10th, 2019.
Gary Jordan (Host): Houston, we have a podcast. Welcome to the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center, Episode 128, “Space Radiation.” I’m Gary Jordan. I’ll be your host today. On this podcast, we bring in the experts, scientists, engineers, astronauts, all to let you know what’s going on in the world of human spaceflight. This is the final part in our six-part series on the Human Research Program. We’ve gone into the weeds on every element of the program, and I hope you’ve enjoyed it. So today, we’re going to focus on space radiation. If you’re familiar with the podcast, you know that we’ve visited this topic a few times in the past. Episodes 57, 64, and 75, for those interested. We’ll readdress some of those topics today as a refresher, but today, we’re going to investigate specifically what happens to the human body when exposed to radiation — a huge consideration when traveling beyond low-Earth orbit, where the Earth itself does a decent job of protecting space travelers. Outside of the Earth’s protection, though, space radiation is a big consideration for human spaceflight, both for the human and for the vehicle itself. This element of Human Research Program focuses on modeling what can happen to the human body in these higher-radiation environments, to help understand the risks and possible mitigations for deep space travel. So, going into the details of this final element is Jason Weeks, Element Manager, and Dr. Steve Platts, acting Element Scientist and Deputy Chief Scientist of the Human Research Program. So, here we go. What we’re doing now to help understand space radiation and its effects on the human body. Enjoy.
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Host: Jason and Steve, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today. Really appreciate you coming on.
Steve Platts: Hey, you’re welcome.
Jason Weeks: Yeah, I’m glad to be here.
Host: So today, we’re going to talk about space radiation. This is the last in our series for Human Research, and honestly, I think it’s one of the more interesting. And I say that a little bit selfishly, because here on the podcast, we’ve done already three episodes on radiation, but I still want to dive deeper. So, this is going to be awesome. This is all about Human Research Program, the space radiation element of that. So, give us a little bit of background on what we’re going to be talking about today. How does space radiation affect the human body? Why are we focusing on this?
Steve Platts: There are a number of things that space radiation can do. So, if we think about cancer, that’s obvious. You know, a lot of people will make that connection between increased radiation exposure and cancer. Now, we’re not talking about the kinds of things that some people have seen on some of the science fiction movies. You know, we’re not talking Creature from the Black Lagoon, and no, we’re not turning anyone into a banana or anything like some of the discussion went with some of the other genetic studies, but it could potentially increase the risk of getting cancer down the road, and that’s one of the things we want to investigate. Are we increasing that risk for the astronauts? Other things can be affected, too — the brain, and how that happens is a collaboration between us and one of the other elements here at JSC. And then, finally, the cardiovascular system — it’s known that the cardiovascular system is sensitive to some of the products that radiation produces in the tissues. So reactive oxygen species can lead to inflammation. We know that that’s bad for the heart, and so, one of the risks that we’re working on is the risk of cardiovascular disease due to spaceflight.
Host: So, Steve, tell me about your background. Just, you know, how’d you end up in this role? What’s your background, and what are you studying? And what’s particularly interesting about the space radiation?
Steve Platts: Yeah, it’s funny you ask that, because I just ended with cardiovascular, and I’m actually a cardiovascular physiologist by training.
Steve Platts: I went to Texas A&M for my Ph.D., and then the University of Virginia for my research fellowship. And then, after my research fellowship, I was looking for a job, and there was an advertisement at experimental biology. I went to the job fair, because my grant at the University of Virginia was running out, and they said they needed a vascular physiologist at NASA. So, I’m like, huh, NASA. That sounds kind of interesting. So, I checked it out, and I applied for the job, and I got the job. So, I started out by running the cardiovascular laboratory here at Johnson Space Center, and then, over the years, I’ve kind of moved out of the “doing the research” phase to the “managing the research” phase. So, I currently serve as the deputy chief scientist for the Human Research Program, and relevant to this podcast, is I’m the acting element scientist for space radiation. So, the element scientist left some time ago, and the element needed some science input and guidance. And so, I’ve been put in this position to help Jason out, and to help the team out for, you know, strategic thinking, and, you know, what’s the science, and help lead the other scientists in the group. So that’s the role I’m playing here.
Host: Which is super-valuable, so, yeah, that’s awesome. Jason, what about you, your background?
Jason Weeks: So, I’m not a scientist by training, never claimed to be. I’ve got a lot of experience in different things across NASA that came — you know, that’s helped me come to this job, and I think do a good job. So, I started off as a management analyst within the chief financial offices and moved from there to be the chief of staff for systems engineering and integration within the Constellation Program. And we were doing a horizontal and vertical integration across the program, and I moved over to the docking system, where I helped with project management, and dabbled in advanced technology, nanotechnology for structural engineering.
Host: Wow. Very technical management and leadership there. So, there’s a lot to — there’s a lot of different disciplines to pull from, but it’s really all about the management part of things.
Jason Weeks: Correct, yes.
Steve Platts: And he’s being modest. He just talked about some of his work. He didn’t tell you he has two master’s degrees.
Steve Platts: And so, he is well-versed on all things NASA. So —
Host: Well, tell me about what it takes to run something like this, then, this element of human research. How is this different from some of the other things that you’ve done before?
Jason Weeks: So, going from an engineering perspective, you are building a widget, and you get a X amount of budget. You get X amount of schedule. Here, you can’t do research on a fixed schedule. You can’t do science, and say, “I’m going to have a breakthrough in 4.2 years, and that’s going to lead to X, that’s going to lead to Y, to Z.”
Host: That’d be nice.
Jason Weeks: It would be nice.
Steve Platts: — you can say that. It’s not going to happen [laughter], but you can say it.
Jason Weeks: It would be nice. So that was the biggest challenge, was to move from a — like a Gantt chart philosophy to a science philosophy, and I’m surrounded by wonderful, great people that make my job a lot easier than it probably seems sometimes, just for the fact that we’re able to all work together. Like, you know, Steve and I are complementary in the approach that we take to help mitigate.
Host: Yeah, definitely for the space radiation element, but I know you being the deputy chief science for HRP — and we talked about this a bunch of times on just some of the previous human research episodes. This level of integration — you talked about working with teams, but the integration not only with space radiation, but how is space radiation playing — playing its role in other elements, in other parts of —
Steve Platts: That’s a great point to bring up, because it’s something that we’re pushing hard on right now, harder than ever, that integration. So, we’ve talked about — and this happens at universities. It happens in industry. You end up with these silos, and so, you have groups who kind of guard their turf, and have their territory, and have their budget. And they’re all separate, and that has happened here at NASA, where we have different elements want to do their thing, and, you know, just kind of keep everything else at arm’s distance. What we’ve been working on for the past few years, and we’re getting pretty good at, is breaking down those silos, and integrating more. For example, I mentioned that radiation can have an effect on the central nervous system, or the brain. And so, all of the work being done on that now is in collaboration with human factors and behavioral performance element. And so, they’re concerned with how the brain’s working. We’re concerned with how the brain’s being affected, and so, we’re working together to try and answer that question. What’s going on in space? Now, we’re doing the same thing with human health countermeasures. And so, the cardiovascular system — you know, you can think — well, why are radiation people studying the cardiovascular system? Well, we’re studying the radiation effects on the cardiovascular system. HHC studies the cardiovascular system, so we’re working together to make sure we’re addressing it from all the right angles. How are we looking at things? We look at things a little differently, but we do complement each other. So that’s a new collaboration, where that risk has just been put together, and we’re working very closely with the folks over in HHC to make sure that that risk gets addressed in all the right ways, with all the right eyes, with all the right experiments to get the best outcome possible.
Host: Now, you had to start somewhere, right? Because when you were thinking about radiation and all of these different things that it can affect — but obviously, that didn’t just come out of nowhere. Like, oh, we need to be looking at this. There has to be some history, so what’s some of the background with this particular element, with space radiation? What have we done in the past, when it comes to studying effects of radiation, and how it affects the human body?
Steve Platts: You want to start that, Jason?
Jason Weeks: Yeah. So, as we — as we started, we didn’t have the benefit of ISS. Right? So, we — you know, as ISS come onboard, we were able to start looking at — you know, looking at radiation from — you know, from that — from the person there. We started doing, you know, dosimetry there. You know, as we know — we spoke about — you know, the astronauts are similar in that they’re like a — you know, the radiation technologist or nuclear engineer worker. They have dosimeters on when they’re on ISS, and they sort of monitor the environment. The SRAG people — the space radiation analysis group — they work on detectors to understand the exposure. And as we moved along, we started to research, you know, for our perspective, chromosome aberrations, you know, the DNA damage to the astronauts onboard space station, the — what happens to food and pharmacology as it’s on ISS. You know, these different things we’re researching to try to find out, and we’re using that on — now we’re going to use NSRL to be able to test countermeasures, you know. So — and then we — you know, we think about — our long-term goal is ISS, Moon, Mars, and so, we use ISS as a test bed. But it’s within the Earth’s magnetosphere, so you’re not going to get a true GCR environment on ISS.
Steve Platts: They’re protected.
Jason Weeks: Yeah, so for, like, a single mission, right, we think about — a person stays on there for six months. They get about 1/10th of the mission exposure of a Mars mission. And so, as you get more — as you stay longer, these year missions, they get in a — they’re having dose rate within them that, after a year, gets to about — be about a third of what a Mars mission would be.
Jason Weeks: And so, you start to add — you know, added it.
Steve Platts: Yeah, the idea with radiation — so just real quick —
Steve Platts: — imagine you’re out in the sun, and so, you go out in the sun for 10 minutes, and then you come back in, especially here in Texas. You know, not too bad. You’re OK. You go out in the sun for an hour with no sunscreen or anything, and what’s going to happen? Right? You’re going to get a burn, or you’re going to feel some effects. And so, that’s from UV radiation, but, you know, the ionizing radiation that we’re talking about isn’t all that different. So, it’s exposure, and so, Jason was saying — talking about dose, and dose rate. Those are really what determine the effects that’s going on. If you get a very short exposure of a very low dose, you know, your body’s going to be able to deal with that right away, but if — it’s when you get these longer exposures, longer time and higher doses. Like he said, Mars is 10 times the dose that the current astronauts get on the space station. So, you can understand where — gee, that’s more than what we’ve studied. And so, we’ve done a lot of research initially on what is the effect for shuttle-duration missions, and then, with the station — OK, we’re doing a lot of research on shuttle — station-duration missions, so six months or so. Ah, but now, we’re talking about going to Mars — three-plus years, and no magnetosphere to protect you. You’re beyond the Van Allen belt. You’re going to get exposed to different things. Jason mentioned GCR, which is galactic cosmic radiation. So that’s much more complex than if you’re just getting an x-ray, or if you’re having exposure from gamma radiation or something. And so, it’s complex. It’s complicated, and it can do more damage than the types of radiation that you might normally be exposed to here on Earth. So, it’s not just more radiation, or a longer exposure. It’s also different kinds of radiation, right?
Host: That explains why you were mentioning the space station when you talk about space radiation. You can’t just use radiation models on the ground. There’s this specific type, this galactic cosmic ray that you’re talking about, so you have to build — you have to collect data. You said you’re using dosimeters, just kind of measuring the environment. It seems like you’re investigating multiple different areas of that, just the environment itself. A you said its effect on people and its effect on food, but really, you need — it sounds like you need that space environment to truly get the data for these specific ones, these galactic cosmic rays.
Steve Platts: Yeah, and that’s a great point.
Jason Weeks: Yeah, and part of what Steve and Dr. Fogarty talk about is, you know, you’re going to experience the thing as a whole body. You’re not going to experience the — you know, the GCR in the brain, and that’s it. You’re not going to experience isolation and confinement. You’re not going to experience this. You’re going to experience all of these stresses at the same time, and so, you know, what are they going to — what are they experiencing? And so, you know, from — as you learn more — as we learn more on the ground, we learn more on ISS, you know, there’s a couple of things we look at — are is space radiation — is it additive? You know, does it — the radiation add to — add onto microgravity or altered gravity? Is it — does it have synergistic responses? You know, is it synergistic in the radiation can cause even larger effects with either one or two of them alone, or combined? Or is it antagonistic, to where they may actually cause — you see kind of a decrease, because the way they’re working? So, these are the things — as we learn more, we’re able to better understand what we’re going to face on a three-year mission. It’s not like a six-month or one-year. I mean, these guys are going to be gone for three years.
Host: Yeah. And that’s — I’m getting a better feel for understanding not only is it just the — I was, you know, trying to think — maybe it’s exclusively the galactic cosmic ray, but you used the word “synergistic.” It’s all of these different factors. It’s a number of different stressors, because that is the reality of spaceflight. The reality is that you’re going to get blasted from all different areas, and you have all these different areas. Steve, you mentioned before this integration with all these different components of human research, thinking about the human health countermeasures, thinking about the human performance, these — all these different elements, and understanding the totality of the stressors on the human body sounds important to that.
Steve Platts: Yeah, we like to think of it more as the environment of spaceflight. In kind of the older days, we used to think about it as microgravity. So, we would talk about the microgravity environment, but that’s not really just it. It’s the whole environment of spaceflight. So that includes microgravity. That includes space radiation. That includes isolation and confinement. That has a big psychological stress, and that psychological stress gets converted by the body into a stress response. And if you look at the mechanisms for that stress response, they’re very similar to the mechanisms that we see from radiation, or from microgravity. So, we have this idea of potentially a common pathway. So, is there a pathway by which all the different effects or many of the effects of spaceflight kind of come together into a bottleneck, and then cause the responses that we see? And if there is, that’s a great place for us to do research. Because we can get more bang for our buck by researching within that pathway. So that’s a field of research we’re working on right now. Is there a common pathway? And if there is, what is it? Now, some of us, you know, think we might have an idea what might be going on, but, you know, it’s just a hypothesis. And so, we’re working on that research right now.
Host: There you go.
Steve Platts: So that’s a pretty exciting part, is getting all those things together — like you were talking about the integration — getting lots of different people thinking about the same thing from a slightly different viewpoint, and then how can we solve those issues. Because our goal, really, is all the same. We want to keep the astronauts as healthy as possible. We want to keep them safe. We want to come up with countermeasures that can treat any issues they have, and we also want to figure out what potential issues there are so that we can prevent them. And so, it’s a — it’s more holistic medical approach to the astronauts. It’s not just treating issues. It’s preventing issues. So, it’s preventative medicine, and those kind of things, and we work with the medical folks quite a bit, too, along those lines.
Jason Weeks: And just to be clear, there are two types of radiation. We talk GCR because that’s, you know, the big — that’s the — you know, the heavy — you know, the heavy penetrating protons, but we also have solar particle events. And so, they’re from — you know, they’re from —
Steve Platts: So, sun flares.
Host: — yeah
Jason Weeks: sun flares, and they act in a — you know, in a ying and a yang effect, where the solar particle events, when you’re in a — in the high part of it, the GCR is low. And when the solar particle event cycle is low, GCR’s going to be high. So, you use that when you’re doing the mission planning. You want to go and do the worst — you know, the worst of it during the solar max, because then GCR’s going to be less.
Host: That’s right, but there’s — there can be events, I guess, solar events, like a solar flare that could cause even more issues, right?
Jason Weeks: And that’s where we spoke earlier with the space radiation analysis group. They’re kind of like the sister organization to us. They’re looking at the operations on ISS right now, and they’re doing a lot of space weather forecasting to where they’ve got it down pretty well, to where there may be one or two events that might pop out. But they — you know, for the most part, they understand what’s coming, and they’re getting better and better at understanding what that is.
Host: So, tell me about the full scope of space radiation, Jason, the way that — you know, we have this element of human research, and we’re focusing on space radiation, how it affects the human body. What is the scope? What are the things that are important to you? Where are you putting your resources, in terms of studying in these places and working with these researchers, and the full scope of what you’re doing?
Jason Weeks: So, the good thing about us is we touch a plethora of universities all across the U.S. We also partner with — we couldn’t be where we are today without the terrestrial research. We have — you know, we work with [National Institutes of Health] NIH. We work with the [Food and Drug administration] FDA. We’re working with National Cancer Institute, and, you know, we use all of this information as the body of knowledge grows to go into — we take that data and apply — you know, try to get — do mitigation, and testing within — at the NSRL, to where we can use that. Because not everything terrestrially will go to space and work 100 percent like it does on Earth, so we have to take — this works, and we can repurpose this to go to NSRL and test it. Does the mitigator work the same within a GCR environment as it would on Earth? If it does, that’s great. We can do more testing, and we can — you know, we can move up. We use an FDA animal rule, to where we can’t just go and irradiate a human. You know, that’s not —
Steve Platts: Yeah, the [Institutional Review Board] IRB frowns on that [laughter].
Jason Weeks: — yeah, that’s looked down upon, right?
Host: Yeah. Right.
Jason Weeks: So, we have to take an approach to where we can ultimately translate between rodents, and — or whatever to humans, to where we can give them the best chance to thrive in this space environment.
Steve Platts: Hey, can you give the listeners a little more information on NSRL, and what that means?
Host: I was just about to ask, yeah, yeah.
Jason Weeks: Yes, I’ll go through the little spiel real quick. So NSRL was commissioned in 2003. It’s a joint — we fund the operations, and it’s managed by the Brookhaven Lab for Department of Energy in Brookhaven, New York. Let’s see — operates about 1200 hours a year. We have three runs — a spring, summer, and fall, and what we did back — back several years ago, as the lander went to Mars, we were able to get the data from the dosimeter there, and understand what that environment was, what the actual environment from the Earth to the Mars looks like, based on that dosimeter. And the team at NSRL started working on how do I go from just doing an individual ion, which is usually what happens pretty much around the world — I can go to Chiba and do an experiment, and I can get a proton, or a helium, or an ion. But we know that’s not the environment. We’ve got a lot of good information from 30, 40 years of research, but we understand we’re going to galactic cosmic radiation. So, we started working on a GCR sim, and 18 — summer of ’18 was the first time we did a run using a galactic cosmic radiation simulator. So, what that does — we’re able to run back-to-back-to-back 33 ions within 90 minutes. So, we’re able to create or simulate the GCR environment on Earth. And it’s the only place on Earth that can be — this can be done. So, it’s the next step. It really is an evolutionary step to go from a single ion to 30 — you know, 33, 30 — you know, 32, 33 ions. You’re essentially getting the periodic table through a 90-minute — to where we can look at what happens with a chronic exposure. That’s what we’re looking at. We’re not looking at a six-month or a year. We’re looking at a chronic exposure. What does that do to the body? So, it really is cutting-edge.
Steve Platts: Yeah, and to follow up on that, think about what events we have here on Earth that we can use to simulate, or at least to model spaceflight radiation. So, a lot of the information that we have is from Hiroshima — so atomic bomb survivors, right? That was a one-time event radiation exposure. We have nuclear workers. We have all these other things, and those go into models. We have animal work. Those go into models, but you can’t — as we were joking earlier, you can’t radiate a human. However, if you have humans who are being treated with radiation for cancer, you are essentially irradiating a human. And if we can get them to volunteer for research studies, then we can get something out of a bad situation. And so, we have two of those studies going on right now at MD Anderson Cancer Center. We have a study looking at the cardiovascular system, and we have a study looking at the central nervous system. And they’re both using cancer patients who are being treated for various cancers in the head, neck, and thorax, and we are looking at how those exposures are affecting the heart and are affecting the brain. So, we’re not just using animal models. We’re not just using computer modeling. We’re doing the best we can to get human research in an ethical and safe way, and, you know, we’re making big leaps in that category. Jason’s mentioned GCR a few times, and we can’t emphasize enough how important that is. Because a lot of — like I said, a lot of our historical research is single-ion, or it’s single-exposure. Imagine — think about exposures, and so, you get something once. And so, the way people have simulated space radiation is they’ve given the entire dose you get in a mission at one time, in a few minutes, or an hour, or something like that. Now, imagine the difference that your body’s going to see if you were to give it a little bit every day, or a little bit every week over the course of a much longer time point. The biological difference is huge, because you have all these internal repair mechanisms that your cells use to repair DNA, and to fix organelles that are not working properly, or to take cells out that are not functioning properly. You know, the average person actually develops cancer many times in their life, but most of the time, your body gets rid of it, right? Your natural immune responses get rid of that cancer cell, or those cancer cells before they ever become an issue. And so, for chronic, which is what our astronauts will see over the course of many years, you know, it’s quite different. And so, until recently, we haven’t been able to take advantage of that. We’ve had to use computer modeling to say, “OK, from a theoretical basis, taking this bolus, or this one-time dose, what do we think is going to happen if we were to spread it out?” Now we can actually spread it out, and we have another facility at Colorado State that we use, where they can give chronic, low doses, and they have a source. And it just gives off a constant — well, relatively constant, because you have decay — dose, and they modify that so that we keep the same dose every day. And then we can get data on long, low exposures, these chronic exposures that are going to be more similar to what we’re going to see in a long-duration spaceflight. So, we’re getting better and better and better. We’re getting more relevant. We’re getting more space-like. We’re not having to extrapolate as much, and it’s just — it’s a very exciting time for us. And we’re looking forward to all the things we can do in the future.
Jason Weeks: And see, I think one of the things that Steve hit on was the radiation quality effects, and just for what that is, is — as we said, we got the 32 — you know, we got those ions. Not every ion is created equal. And so, what we have to do is look at what that — we have to make it equivalent. So, what we have is — we look at an ion, for example, in — an ion will go through you, and the — with .5 Gray is what the — is what goes through your body. But you won’t — you may get a gamma ray, but it won’t be the — it won’t feel the same. Because they’re weighted different. So, when we look at .5 Gray, we have to look in totality of what are the ions. So, you may feel a .5 Gray ion. You may get a .5 Gray silicon, or a helium, and it feel a lot less. You may get another one, and it’s going to feel more. So, we have to take that in — it’s an omnipresent GCR. So, you’re going to get it 360 degrees the whole time you’re in deep space, and so it — we have to look at these unique challenges that we’re facing.
Host: Yeah. I’m hearing when it comes to trying to — I mean, the goal here is to have the best understanding of what the space environment is like, and to understand what it’s doing to the human body. It sounds like when it comes to researching this, data over long periods of time seems to be a very important thing.
Jason Weeks: Mm-hmm.
Host: These — you’re talking about — chronic was the word, and then it sounds like making sure that the models, particularly here on the ground, are representative of what is truly out in space, so getting that accuracy — it sounds like just a lot of data collection [laughter].
Steve Platts: There is, and there has been for quite some time.
Host: Yeah. Yeah, that’s a lot of different rays. So, it sounds like when it comes to trying to understand space radiation, there’s a lot that has to do with gathering data over long periods of time, this long data collection to understand this — because that’s really, truly representative of what it’s like to travel through space. You’re going to be there for a long time, and then, Jason, you mentioned this — trying to best model all of the different parts, these — you mentioned all of the different ions and making sure that that’s representative of what you’re actually going to see in space. We have a lot of data collection on the space station, so there’s a lot that we can learn there. I know going forward, though, we’re talking about this new program called Artemis.
Steve Platts: Mm-hmm.
Host: The Moon is a different radiation environment from low-Earth orbit.
Steve Platts: Yes.
Host: What is it that we are looking forward to doing there?
Steve Platts: So, the Moon is actually much more Mars-like than low-Earth orbit is. So, you will get more galactic cosmic radiation. I think the estimates are it’s about half of what we might see when we’re going to Mars. So, it’s actually a great place to look at radiation. So, our idea has been we’re going to use the Moon as an analogue for Mars, just like right now we’re using the space station as an analogue for the Moon and for Mars. And so, it’s always that forward-looking — what are we going to be doing next? What do we have to protect for next? And so, one kind of — it might sound like a crazy idea that we came up with, but I think in the long run, it could be helpful, is having a vivarium on the Moon. Right? Sounds kind of nutty — like, well, why would we want to do that? But think about this. So, we do a lot of research with animal models. Imagine if we have the animal models on the Moon, getting exposed to the reduced gravity every day, constantly, and then also, if we vary the shielding in this habitat, we could end up with these animal models being exposed to different levels of GCR all at the same time. And then, if we leave them there long enough, that really will be the best simulation of what’s going to happen in a trip to and returning from Mars. So, we can get a lot of information out of the lunar exposures to predict what we’re going to see in Mars, because we don’t want to discover what Mars is going to be like when we get to Mars. We need to know way beforehand, and so, we’re going to have to use the Moon as an analogue. And we think we have some ways that we can really do that. It’s going to be challenging — a lot of things we do here at NASA are challenging, but we’re confident that we can take advantage of that. And then, obviously, we’ll be studying the astronauts, too, and then — you think more of the phase two of what they’ve talked about for Artemis is the longer-duration stays on the Moon, and potentially, in the future, a permanent presence on the Moon. If we have those things, we will be there looking at the exposure, not just to keep those astronauts safe, but also, again, looking forward to — OK, how can we extrapolate this out? How can we use this data and this information to help our astronauts who are going to be going to Mars?
Jason Weeks: And that’ll — and it’ll be wonderful — be able to help us from a modeling perspective, right? We have the models on Earth. We think, you know, we’ve validated our models on ISS. And so now, we can extrapolate those to the Moon, and then, once we really get to the Moon, we can validate the models. Then we can use that and say, “OK, we thought it was going to be X. We got to the Moon, and it was Y. Now, let’s extrapolate that. Now that we — because we know the environment of Mars, now what — now we’ve validated it to the Moon. What does it say about Mars?” And so, we’d have enough time in there to understand what we’re getting to. Like Steve said, we don’t want to get to Mars and realize, oh, wow, there really are black swan things that we could’ve done on the Moon and ISS to, you know, prevent something.
Host: Yeah. It sounds like — you know, like I was thinking, Steve, when you were mentioning the Moon, and these types of tests — I was like, ah, man, that’s the ultimate — that’s the ultimate simulation. That’s the ultimate model. That would be your Mars data, but from Jason, what you’re saying, it’s — you can’t just do that one thing. It sounds like you need to cross-reference, and you have all this other available data to make sure that everything is lining up in your predictions for what ultimately will be in Mars. You mentioned dosimeters on Mars, too, so you got that going for you. So there — you have — all of these things together gives you the best model.
Jason Weeks: Yep.
Steve Platts: And then, let’s not forget about Gateway. So, we’re going to —
Host: That’s right.
Steve Platts: — we’re going to have dosimetry aboard Gateway as well, helping us look at the exposures there.
Host: And that’s going to be orbiting the Moon?
Steve Platts: Yes. Yes, and that’s — even though it’s probably only going to be occupied for parts of the year, we can put dosimetry on board that will stay there long-term. So, we can get those long, long exposures, you know, years hopefully, and again, that’s more information we have about GCR. If we do experience any solar flares, and we have solar particle events, we’ll know that, because we can predict those, but we’re not great at the timing for predicting them. And so — but we know when they happen. And so, we’ll be able to tell — OK, we have this dose, but we know this amount of it is from the solar particle event. The rest of it here is from galactic cosmic radiation, and then we’ll have a better feel for that, and then plug that into the computational modeling, the predictive modeling for what Mars then is going to look like. So, we’re taking the approach of utilizing every — every program, every analogue that we can to get to the ultimate goal of getting to Mars.
Host: Kind of sticking with this theme of rounding out all of these types of research to — with the ultimate goal being Mars, and understanding, and modeling what’s happening there, I want to kind of zoom back down to the NSRL. We mentioned it a couple times — NASA Space Radiation Laboratory. What we’re doing there specifically, and who is involved, and what are the things we’re looking at in this lab? This — it sounded particularly interesting, because you mentioned it was the only — it was the only lab on the Earth that can simulate these galactic cosmic rays and has all of these different ions being thrown at you. So, what exactly is going on in the lab?
Jason Weeks: So, we’re doing — there’s a lot of different things going on in lab. So, it’s not just us going there, doing that. We have people from Orion going and testing electronics, because once you get past — you know, once you get past low-Earth orbit, you are going to — the radiation will play a factor in electronics. So, they go and test the electronics, how that’s going to do. They go there and test — revalidate the dosimeters that they’re getting on ISS. They go and validate those. We have space biology that comes in and does testing. We have other agency — we have Canadian Space Agency come. We have individual universities come and test radiation or ions for plants, for — you know, whoever wants to come, we can work with that.
Host: Yeah. It’s like, how does space radiation affect this thing? How does it affect this thing? How does it affect this thing? Yeah, you can put anything in there.
Jason Weeks: Because, you know — and the good thing is, with the expansion of all these start-ups — SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, these other folks that want to go to the Moon — they want to go to Mars. It builds a mini eco-environment of people who want to get out there and be on the cutting edge of what’s going to happen in space. And so, we — again, we will get data from that that can only help us. The more data can only help us understand what we’re going into.
Host: Yeah. So, I mean, thinking about that, it sounds like there’s still a lot of data-gathering to fully understand what’s going to happen, but things that we need to be careful — that we can say right now, “We need to be careful of this when we’re on route” — let’s say Mars, for example. We are on route to Mars. What do we have to be careful of? What do we have to understand what’s happening, in terms of the environment of space, and what’s happening to the astronauts? You know, how much — the whole duration of a Mars mission that could be three years-ish, maybe. So, what do we understand now? What are the things we have to look out for?
Steve Platts: Well, we know that the predicted radiation exposure will increase the risk for some cancers, and so, we are working on understanding what those cancers might be. Because as we’ve talked several times here, galactic cosmic radiation is different than a lot of the radiation exposures you have here on Earth. So, does that difference equate to a different type of cancer that you might get? And again, we’re not talking about, you know, the astronauts are on orbit, and, you know, they’re getting cancer while they’re there. No, that’s not what’s happening at all. It’s their long-term risk of getting cancer is elevated, and that’s what we’re trying to figure out. And then, what type of cancer would that be? And then, what are some of the countermeasures? We’re already doing countermeasure work, and so, we’re looking at — there’s a neat study looking at aspirin. And so, it’s been shown in the literature that if you give aspirin after an exposure to radiation, you can reduce the risk of certain kinds of cancer by a huge percentage. I believe it was over 40 percent.
Steve Platts: And that’s massive.
Host: That’s significant.
Steve Platts: And so, we’re sponsoring studies looking at aspirin. Now, what would that mechanism be? Well, you can just — without having any data on that, you can imagine, well, what is aspirin used for? It’s used as an anti-inflammatory. So, are we talking about that inflammatory issue again, right? And there are other countermeasures we’re working on. We’re working on potentially soliciting for a whole battery of countermeasures in the near future. So, we’re already working on that. We’re already working on ways to prevent anything that might happen, and again, prevention is better than treatment. No one wants anything untoward to happen to an astronaut.
Jason Weeks: And again, we’re not doing this in a silo. You know, we’re working with the terrestrial — because we — again, we are going to learn from the MD Anderson. We are going to learn from NIH, FDA, [Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority] BARDA, who — you know, whichever alphabet soup that we want to add. If they’re doing research, we try to keep up with the literature, and use that to understand or grow our body of knowledge.
Host: So, along those lines, we’ll sort of wrap up with this. It sounds like what — based on what we discussed today, there is so much work ahead to help kind of model all these things that we have great ideas, based on what we think we understand, and what we hope to continue research into, to help better understand. What excites you the most about some of the upcoming research with space radiation, and some of the missions coming up for NASA that’ll help to kind of flesh out some of these ideas?
Jason Weeks: Go ahead.
Steve Platts: OK, I’ll go first. I think the idea of doing the radiation experiments on the Moon to me is the — I mean, it’s incredibly exciting, and allows your imagination to kind of run wild, and just imagine the things you can do when you’re actually in the environment. And you’re not having to simulate something. It’s there. That’s GCR. Those are [solar particles event] SPEs that you’re getting exposed to — just the real-world, real-time work that we’re going to be able to do when we’re in that environment. And then, also, that gives us greater purpose for being there, right? That gives us the idea that we’re using that to move forward, to get to Mars. So, for me, personally, the idea of being on the Moon and doing research on the Moon that helps us do further exploration is the most exciting.
Jason Weeks: And see, I do enjoy the idea of doing the whole-body radiation and looking at all different stresses at the same time. For my — for my side of the equation of the two of us, I would look forward to more working with outside people that are not necessarily inherent to NASA. You know, what is [European Space Agency] ESA doing? Can I work with [Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency] JAXA more on the [Radiation Effects Research Foundation] RERF facility? Can I — you know, can I work with, you know, the Russians more? Can we build more collaborations? Because, you know, more collaborations to me would — will help us move the schedule to the left — go back to schedule — schedule to the left, and to increase our body of knowledge more. And again, I go back to more knowledge is better.
Host: That is wonderful. Yeah, it’s a very exciting time coming up. I definitely appreciate everything we’ve talked about today for space radiation. It sounds like it’s more complicated than maybe I think people think. It sounds very simple — space radiation — but there’s just so many different elements to this, and getting the best data is super-important. So, to the both of you, Jason and Steve, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today and talking about space radiation.
Steve Platts: Oh, you’re welcome.
Jason Weeks: Yeah, thank you for having us.
Host: Yeah, pleasure.
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Host: Hey, thanks for sticking around. Really interesting conversation, we had with Jason Weeks and Steve Platts today on space radiation. If you’d like to learn more specifically on space radiation, there is an eBook on their site. You go to NASA.gov/HRP, click on the element that is space radiation, and then they have a downloadable eBook where you can go into really all of the weeds of everything that we’ve talked about today, and even more. If you like podcasts, NASA.gov/podcasts — there’s ours, “Houston, We Have a Podcast.” You can go through a whole list of episodes in no particular order, or you can check out some of the many other podcasts we have at NASA. We are on the NASA Johnson Space Center pages of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Use the hashtag #askNASA on your favorite platform to submit an idea for the show. Just make sure to mention it’s for “Houston, We Have a Podcast.” This episode was recorded on December 10th, 2019. Thanks to Alex Perryman, Pat Ryan, Norah Moran, Belinda Pulido, Brett Redden, Emmalee Mauldin, and the Human Research Program team for helping to bring this all together, and thanks again to Jason Weeks and Steve Platts for taking the time to come on the show. That wraps up our series on the Human Research Program. I hope you enjoyed it. Give us a rating and feedback on whatever platform you listen to. Tell us how we did. We’ll be back next week with your regularly-scheduled programming.