Monday, August 18, 2014

To Your Health

Click the arrow to watch the film on YouTube. Video source: Video YouTube channel.

Is human spaceflight a waste of money?

Here's another example that the answer is no.

NASA has posted an article about the results of immune system research aboard the International Space Station.

Data generated early in NASA’s Integrated Immune study indicated that the distribution of immune cells in the blood of crew members aboard the space station is relatively unchanged during flight. However, they also revealed that some cell function is significantly lower than normal, or depressed, and some cell activity is heightened. In a sense, the immune systems of crew members are confused.

When cell activity is depressed, the immune system is not generating appropriate responses to threats. This may also lead to the asymptomatic viral shedding observed in some crew members, which means latent, or dormant, viruses in the body reawaken, but without symptoms of illness. When activity heightens, the immune system reacts excessively, resulting in things like increased allergy symptoms and persistent rashes, which have been reported by some crew members.

Why does this matter?

For long-duration spaceflight such as a three-year round trip to Mars, it means another problem to be resolved before we send humans. Looked at another way, it's another argument in favor of sending robotic craft instead of people.

For pharmaceutical companies, a microgravity platform such as the ISS can save years of clinical trials. I wrote in July 2013 about five medical discoveries made in microgravity either on the market or in clinical trials. Amgen took advantage of microgravity to accelerate the testing of Prolia on mice. Since bone loss happens much more quickly in microgravity, it can be demonstrated more quickly if the product works (or doesn't).

The potential for research and eventually production of products in microgravity is why you see so many companies lining up to use the ISS and future platforms, such as the Bigelow Aerospace expandable habitats and an autonomous version of the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser.


  1. " it's another argument in favor of sending robotic craft instead of people."

    And also another argument for using spin gravity.

    1. Well, yes, and I'm a fervent believer that humans expanding out into the solar system is inevitable. But I don't think we should people in space just for the sake of putting people in space. It should happen when the reason is compelling, e.g. we've reached the limitations of what robots can do and only humans can perform a critical function such as resource mining and processing.

      But let's also raise the cost issue. Yeah, you could use spin gravity, but now you're adding even more cost to sending humans to Mars.

      Earlier this year, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) proposed putting two people in the Orion for a two-year flyby of Mars and Venus. Why? The only reason he gave is that he claimed it would be inspirational. He never said what they would do. Take pictures out the window? We've had robotic probes doing that for decades, and now we have robotic rovers on the Mars surface doing incredible HD photography.

      Rep. Smith didn't mention spin gravity. Without that, it would probably cost about $200 billion, according to one panelist who testified before his committee. Now you want to add a spin gravity system, which hasn't been built, much less tested. So you're adding billions more.

      Where will all that money be found? Isn't it a lot cheaper to continue sending robotic craft? Where do we reach the point that the cost of sending humans outweighs the savings by doing it with robots?

      Those are questions that have to be answered before you convince Congress or private investors to send humans.

    2. If a Mars mission is only for science, then I totally agree that there is no need to send people, with or without spin gravity. I was merely disputing any implication that the findings of this study mean that space travel is off limits to humans.

      Too often such a finding is presented as yet another bad thing that happens to people "in space', when in fact it is a bad thing that happens in micro-gravity. It's quite possible that 10% or 20% of a g would greatly ameliorate or eliminate most of these effects. This would be enough to get fluids flowing in the correct direction and to provide a vector for internal workings like the immune system. We need a gravity lab in orbit, as advocated by the Space Studies Institute and others, to do animal studies to find out what is the minimum gravity needed for a healthy life.

      Regarding costs, both science and HSF will continue to be greatly limited until the cost of space transportation is drastically reduced. Smith's SLS/Orion are absurd boondoggles that do nothing to lower the cost of space transport. With low cost reusable access to LEO, ambitious in-space reusable systems start to become affordable. Something like the Nautilus-X with a centrifuge is not out of the question. Simple tethered systems could be tried on the short term.

      We can eventually overcome the health hazards of spaceflight but unfortunately the R&D needed to do that gets pushed ever farther into the future because of poor space policy making and budgeting.

    3. Okay, Hobbyspacer, then we're in agreement. :-)

      I would love to see Nautilus-X some day. But I'm not counting on Congress to fund it any time soon.

  2. " it's another argument in favor of sending robotic craft instead of people."

    And also another argument for sending humans not on a long trip but to the Moon for the purpose of establishing the first off-Earth settlement.