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Astronaut Safety Concerns Confound Longterm Space Exploration

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Lisa Winter

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596 Astronaut Safety Concerns Confound Longterm Space Exploration

Though humanity may dream of traveling to Mars and beyond, it might not happen as we hope. A panel of buzzkills experts from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) recently determined that such longterm space travel would exceed current safety regulations. This raises specific ethical concerns that would need to be addressed prior to the development of such a mission, even though any such missions would be decades away.

Currently, astronauts are permitted to spend six months out in space aboard the International Space Station. NASA estimates that a journey to Mars would be considerably longer, lasting about 18 months to travel to and from, in addition to exploring the Martian surface. There are also differences in the possible health effects from the short term low-Earth orbit versus longterm space travel.


According to the report: "The committee finds relaxing (or liberalizing) current health standards to allow for specific long duration and exploration missions to be ethically unacceptable."

Astronauts aboard the ISS often experience dizziness, blurred vision, and muscle weakness from being in space. A recent study also determined that the lack of gravity also makes hearts more spherical, rather than the oblong, tapered shape we know it to be. Those who would travel further out into space would be facing loss of home mass in addition to a greater risk of developing cancer due to the high levels of radiation. There could also be other risks that are currently unknown. 

For astronauts to be permitted to take on that risk in future missions, current safety regulations would have to be expanded or waived. NASA had asked the IOM to review the regulations and either make a special set of regulations for Mars missions or to make an exception. The IOM has determined that the risk is not worth it and changing the current restrictions is opening up an ethical can of worms. Exceptions for prolonged space travel could be granted under rare circumstances, but NASA would need to make a good case for why it would be necessary.

Chair of the committee and bioethics professor Jeffrey Kahn from Johns Hopkins noted that “[f]rom its inception, space exploration has pushed the boundaries and risked the lives and health of astronauts. Determining where those boundaries lie and when to push the limits is complex.”


The IOM also noted that astronauts would need to be fully informed of the potential health hazards from space travel. They also advise NASA to fully cover former astronauts’ healthcare upon their return to Earth.


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