Op-ed | Protecting the Health, Safety, and Comfort Of Civilians in the Commercialization of Space

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Until recently, with several exceptions, the only travelers in space have been career astronauts. Most stakeholders envision that space will be populated in the coming decades by average civilians who will travel, live and work in space. In the February 2021 edition of the Harvard Business Review, Matt Weinzierl and Mehak Sarang stated that we are reaching the first stages of a “true space-for-space economy.” They observed that the commercial space industry has the “intention and capability of bringing private citizens to space as passengers, tourists, and — eventually — settlers, opening the door for businesses to start meeting the demand those people create over the next several decades with an array of space-for-space goods and services.”  

There are plans to create research laboratories and manufacturing facilities in space to produce new drugs and manufacture materials that will greatly benefit terrestrials. There are also plans to mine helium-3 and other rare metals on the moon and asteroids. Mining will require trained miners to oversee the process of safe extraction and efficient delivery to Earth.

Although a small number of civilians have experienced space travel to the Kármán line or beyond to the International Space Station since 2001, the recent spaceflights by Blue Origin in July, October, and December 2021, and March and June 2022 (26 civilians), Virgin Galactic in July 2021 (three civilians), and SpaceX’s Inspiration4 (four civilians) and Axiom-1 missions (four civilians) represent the interest, commitment and intent of the U.S. space industry to commercialize space in a manner and at a pace that only American ingenuity and industry can accomplish.

Another exciting landmark development occurred in October 2021, when AstroAccess flew a group of individuals with disabilities who were scientists, veterans, students, athletes, and artists on a historic parabolic flight with the Zero Gravity Corporation, as the first step in a progression toward launching a diverse population of people to space. 

To prepare for the anticipated population of space by civilians, I submitted a workshop proposal to the National Space Council in March 2020 to create the first-ever Human Research Program for Civilians in the Commercialization of Space (HRP). The proposal was viewed favorably and recommended to the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) for implementation. CSF accepted the request and agreed to be the host for conducting the scientific workshop on creating the HRP. The first step was to create a CSF Workshop Planning Committee comprised of representatives from all stakeholders interested in human research in space travel and habitation.  The CSF Committee included key representatives from Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, SpaceX, Axiom Space, Sovaris Space, Orbital Medicine, FAA, HHS, NASA, Johns Hopkins University Medical School, Baylor College of Medicine Center of Space Medicine and the Translational Research Institute for Space Health, and the MITRE Corporation.

The CSF Workshop Planning Committee recognized the difference in the health and fitness of career astronauts and average civilians, many with underlying health conditions and disabilities. The CSF initiative, therefore, was more focused on the health needs of regular civilians who will travel, live and work in commercial space. 

The CSF/MITRE Workshop was conducted May 11–12, 2021, with the participation of nearly 100 scientists and space medicine experts. 

The workshop examined the contributions of two committees, one on the impact of suborbital space travel on civilians in space (chaired by Dr. Mark Shelhamer of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine) and the other on the impact of orbital and beyond low Earth orbit spaceflight and habitation on civilians (chaired by Dr. Michael Schmidt, CEO of Sovaris Space). It was decided that the space industry, in cooperation with other stakeholders, is key to the development of a robust research program that would bring a collegial, collaborative and cooperative consortium of space researchers together to understand, prevent, and mitigate biomedical risks faced by civilians in commercial space. 

Summary of Priority Projects Recommended by Workshop Participants

Some of the priority human research topics recommended for civilians engaged in suborbital spaceflight include: 

  1. Determining the functional capability of civilians to sustain the impact of spaceflight; 
  2. Identifying effective interventions to prevent or mitigate the impact of spaceflight (such as space motion sickness, fear, anxiety and stress); 
  3. Studying the impact of suborbital space travel on civilians with preexisting health problems (such as diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure or atrial fibrillations) and disabilities (such as amputations, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, or spinal cord injuries); 
  4. Assessing the impact of suborbital flight on civilians with implanted medical devices and those who take life-sustaining medications.

The human research projects recommended for civilians in orbital and beyond low Earth orbit spaceflight and habitation include: 

  1. A multiyear study of the impact of microgravity on the physiology and psychology of civilians. NASA has defined some potentially serious consequences of long-duration spaceflight; 
  2. Strategies to protect civilians from the effects of space-encountered radiation, including solar and galactic cosmic radiation in different regions of space; 
  3. The impact of isolation and confinement on civilians far from their families while in orbit or on the moon; and 
  4. Issues related to special accommodations for individuals with disabilities in spaceflight and habitation. 

The future is promising for a significant expansion of civilians as tourists, habitants and workers in space led by a blossoming commercial space sector. To ensure that all civilians may travel, live and work in space, we need a robust human research program to protect the health, safety and comfort of all travelers. This can only be accomplished with the interest and support of the space industry that will realize notable benefits for their mission and, at the same time, will make a great contribution to the American people. The next steps will include the full implementation of the HRP with private sector/federal support.

The full Workshop Summary Report with a detailed Human Research Program for Civilians in Commercial Space may be obtained on the CSF Website at: http://www.commercialspaceflight.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/2021-Summary-Report-of-the-CSF-MITRE-Workshop-and-HRP-for-SFPs.pdf

Michael Marge, Ed.D, is a research professor at SUNY Upstate Medical University. He co-chaired the CSF workshop and served as editor for the workshop’s summary report. He also served as a professional consultant to NASA, assisting with the mission of the Division of Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications and to the MITRE Corp., advising on human space research and the development of a new database on the physiological and psychological responses of civilians in the commercialization of space.