NASA, the U.S. space agency, is planning for a future mission to Mars that would provide the most strenuous test yet of human endurance outside earth's gravity, atmosphere and geomagnetic field. Not far from NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, there is now a new institute that will help support that goal, by coordinating international research on health issues related to human space flight.
Since the human space flight adventure began more than 50 years ago, scientists have learned a lot about things like the effects of weightlessness on bones and muscles, and the danger of increased radiation exposure in space.
The primary mission of the non-profit National Space Biomedical Research Institute, located at Rice University, is to coordinate and support research projects designed to assist the U.S. space program.
Institute Director is Dr. Jeffrey Sutton said, “What we are basically doing is serving as a hub where the research and development in biomedical research for space that is taking place at a distributed network of institutions then comes to this entity for testing and evaluation.”
Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison had a firsthand look at the institute at its official opening in March, trying out a small ultrasound device that researchers say could be used not only for diagnosis, but also for treating kidney stones and other ailments.
One of the institute's key functions is sponsoring lectures and conferences on aerospace medical research, like this one at the nearby Baylor School of Medicine.
Jennifer Law, an aerospace medicine specialist, says doctors in this field describe it as “normal physiology in an abnormal environment.” “By studying the body in a different environment, essentially we are taking away the constant here of gravity and you are seeing how the different body systems adapt to microgravity," she said.
Law says a lot of research done in space has helped develop treatments for people on earth suffering from such ailments as osteoporosis.
But NASA's longterm goal of sending humans millions of kilometers to Mars, on a roundtrip mission lasting more than a year, raises all sorts of health concerns, especially radiation.
There are also concerns about what psychological and social problems could result from having a crew crowded together in a small vehicle for a long period, soaring through a place where no humans have ever gone before.
“What we are trying to do is push the frontiers of medicine, of space... to move us to the next step... and it is certainly not risk free, at all. It is a very risky enterprise," said Sutton.
But Sutton says humanity's future could depend on the ability to travel safely beyond our native planet.