We will learn much more about how the human body reacts to space

We may be entering a renaissance for human spaceflight research as record numbers of private citizens go into space — and as scientists improve techniques for gathering data for these intrepid test subjects.

A sign that rebirth is imminent appeared earlier this week, when the journal Nature published a small batch of papers detailing the physical and mental changes that the four-person crew of Inspiration4 experienced nearly three years ago. This mission, in partnership with SpaceX, launched on September 15, 2021 and returned to Earth three days later.

During the mission, the crew experienced a number of modest molecular changes, dysregulated immune systems and mild decreases in cognitive performance. But the researchers are only able to analyze the data — more than 100,000 health-related data points — because the four-person crew was able to reliably collect it in the first place.

This is a greater achievement than can be understood. The Inspiration4 crew received a lot of training, primarily with SpaceX, which provided the Dragon capsule for their journey through orbit. But their preparation is still a long way from that of NASA astronauts aboard the ISS, who also regularly perform a battery of health tests on themselves. This includes ultrasounds, cognitive tests, biopsies, blood and saliva tests, skin swabs and sensorimotor tests.

“You can do research with private individuals in space, that’s the number one result [of the research]”, said Dr. Dorit Donoviel in a recent interview. Dr. Donoviel is a co-author of one of the papers published in Nature and an associate professor at the Center for Space Medicine at Baylor University. She is also the executive director of the NASA-funded research consortium, the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH), which conducts and funds cutting-edge research to improve human safety in space.

“I’ll be honest, nobody was sure that we would be able to collect a reasonable amount of data, that we would be able to apply it, that regular people who have never had exposure to scientific research could do something that we would actually be able to analyze,” she continued, referring to the Inspiration4 mission.

In some obvious ways, the Inspiration4 crew is unusual: Mission leader Jared Isaacman is a billionaire who founded a payment processing company when he was 16; Hayley Arcenaux is a physician’s assistant at St. Mary’s Children’s Research Hospital. World famous Jew; Sian Proctor is a pilot with a PhD who teaches geology at the college level; and Christopher Sembroski is a former US Air Force journeyman whose long career as an aerospace engineer brought him to his current workplace, Blue Origin.

Inspiration4 crew.
Image credits: Inspiration 4

And yet, they still came to Inspiration4 as spaceflight novices. This meant that the TRISH researchers had to create a test set that could be performed with minimal training. The Inspiration4 crew also wore Apple watches, and the capsule was equipped with environmental sensors that researchers were able to correlate with other test results. The data link is “unusual,” said Dr. Donoviel, but gave researchers unique insights into how changes in the confined environment affected things like heart rate or cognitive performance.

In general, researchers are trying to move toward digitizing testing and making data collection more passive, to lower the cognitive overhead for the private astronaut. (NASA astronauts also take cognitive tests, but they do so using pencil and paper, Dr. Donoviel said.)

Gathering such information will be critical as the number of private citizens going into space increases, as it almost certainly will in the next decade. Researchers will be better able to understand the effects of spaceflight on people who don’t fit the mold of the typical NASA astronaut: male, white, and in the top percentiles for physical and cognitive performance. But they will only be able to do this if future space tourists are willing to collect the data.

More data will mean a better understanding of how spaceflight affects women versus men, or could help future space tourists with pre-existing conditions understand how they’ll fare in the zero- G. The results from Inspiration4 are promising, especially for space tourism: The TRISH paper found, based on data from that mission, that short-duration missions do not pose significant health risks. This latest preliminary finding adds to existing evidence that long-term stays in space—in this case, 340 days—may not be as dangerous as once assumed.

So far, commercial providers ranging from Axiom Space to SpaceX to Blue Origin have been more than willing to work with TRISH and have agreed to standardize and merge data collected on their respective missions, said Dr. Donoviel.

“They are all competing for these people [as customers]but it allows them to contribute to a common knowledge base,” she added.

This is only the beggining. The rise of non-governmental spaceflight missions raises major questions about the norms, ethics, and regulation of human space exploration. As more private citizens are likely to go into space than ever before, will they be interested in being guinea pigs in order to continue scientific research? Would a private astronaut paying $50 million for a luxury space tourism experience want to spend their time in orbit performing ultrasounds on themselves or meticulously measuring their temporary cognitive decline?

Preferably; maybe no. Last year, Donoviel co-published an article in Science calling for, among other things, the development of a set of principles to guide commercial spaceflight missions. One of those principles the authors looked for is social responsibility—basically, the idea that private astronauts perhaps have an added social responsibility to advance this research.

“If you’re going to go into space, you’re resting on the laurels of all the public funding that has enabled you to go into space. Taxpayers pay for all those space capabilities that now enable you to go into space. So you owe the taxpayers the research,” argued Dr. Donoviel. She added that advances in wearable technology have only lessened the burden on research participants — not just with the Apple Watch, but with technology like the Biobutton device that continuously collects multiple vital signs or a patch of sweat.

“We’re not going to make you miserable, we’re not going to poke you with a needle, we’re not going to make you have an ultrasound, but wear the Biobutton and wear the sweat patch.”

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