Lunar Life Support, Source: NASA
Dr. Joan Vernikos, the former Director of NASA's Life Sciences Division is our first "Guest" Author-Analyst. Her books "The G-Connection" and "Stress Fitness for Seniors" provide knowledge gained and useful applications from space medicine to our lives on Earth. Links to these books, one of her NASA patents for a "human-powered artificial-gravity centrifuge", plus a bio are provided on her web site. She continues to be a strong advocate for promoting valuable collaborations between NASA and space commerce entities to develop innovations and products that benefit all.
The Space Age is still emerging. Many will take exception to this statement, but in terms of human space exploration I believe it’s true. We have much to do before we can practically design, develop and ethically attempt to implement human outposts beyond Earth. The recent 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Lunar landing reminds us that, because of the extraordinary confluence of events driven largely by the Soviet Sputnik launch, exploration by astronauts became national policy. However, Apollo’s roughly 10 day round-trip missions with brief 1-3 day periods on the Lunar surface, at low-gravity and high cosmic radiation exposure, provided little motivation to better understand the human response to this unusual environment. During Apollo Program development, the 14-day Gemini VII mission provided an initial glimpse of human adaptation to microgravity in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). But as long as the engineering wizards could design increasingly sophisticated machines, provide Earth-like spacesuit and spacecraft environments, and stock sufficient supplies, the crews performed mostly as expected.
Our commitment to human space exploration evaporated by Apollo 17 before all the planned missions were flown, mostly because of budget concerns and having no plan or capability to gain additional value from extended stays. Wisely, the next step focused on human biomedical research when NASA used a left-over and modified Saturn V rocket to launch SkyLab considered to be the first U.S. space station. SkyLab utilized an evacuated Saturn fuel stage for human habitation and research in microgravity. We knew that humans could survive the rigors of launch, earth-orbit for at least 14 days, a journey to/from and work on the Moon, some romping about in 1/6th G and return to Earth’s 1G, with relatively few physical problems. But there was enough evidence that had emerged to raise concerns for longer missions. SkyLab missions had three-person crews for durations of 28, 54 and 84 days and established a preliminary knowledge base for space medicine research in the U.S. Since then much more has been learned about identifying and attempting to manage microgravity risks as more astronauts experienced durations up to 6 months on Mir and the International Space Station (ISS).
What are human space exploration prospects for the future?
The recent preliminary report of the Commission on Human Space concluded that current NASA goals for human space exploration are unrealistic, based on projected funding. Independent of their view and any decisions that are subsequently made by the current Administration and NASA in this regard, we have important work that can be done now to further these objectives using existing and evolving LEO platforms. We need to conduct more studies on human and biological adaptations to microgravity, and develop more effective countermeasures to that adaptation to ensure human health in space, on return to Earth, and the verification of life support systems that could eventually extend human habitation opportunities to outposts beyond LEO. Demonstrated solutions to these challenges are needed before major decisions on destinations, mission design, and hardware can be made. There are, as the Commission has identified, major opportunities for involvement of the private sector in support of ISS utilization and future expandable space-based habitats.
There is an increased focus now on clarifying the reasons why humans should explore space along with the potential robotic methods for doing so. Cost and human safety challenges demand that we better define and understand the true value of this for support of national and international goals.
What should we do now?
Assuming that human space exploration will remain a national priority even as cost and value issues are addressed and clarified, there are some high-priority options for proceeding with R&D in the near-term.
1) Where there is minimal means for resupply from Earth, the top priority must be a reliable, closed loop, recyclable life support system, proven operational perhaps for up to three years. The first country to have such a system will lead in human space exploration. Russia, Japan and the European Space Agency are working on such systems, but U.S. efforts have at best been intermittent. Yet the potential for advanced technology development and applications is rich. Recycling of oxygen, CO2, and water, and technology to grow fresh food as well as preserve it for long periods must all be developed. How can we minimize waste and packaging? Perhaps we can make some of it edible or recyclable for the construction of habitats or to provide shielding. In situ resource utilization is a nice idea, but only as a fall-back even for the Moon. Advanced sensors, monitors and control systems are needed to operate the system reliably.
2) We need a new generation of light, flexible, and durable space suits that can resist corrosive planetary surface dust and ideally provide radiation shielding as well. A suit and gloves are needed that are comptible wssssith temperature extremes, can be worn all day, every day, and are readily repaired and perhaps made of as yet-to-be discovered materials.
3) Radiation research has progressed, but there is still no practical effective, lightweight shielding material. Unpopular though it may be, new astronaut selection for long missions should include genetic sensitivity screening. Resistance to radiation may be the only ethical basis for crew selection as such procedures become available. Bioengineering to increase resistance to radiation should be pursued with vigor in the next few years. Radioprotective measures must be safe and reliable.
4) Medical operations will require highly-compact effective new systems. Skylab forced NASA to ‘think small’ leading to miniaturization of instrumentation and non-invasive procedure development. Exploration requires shifting to another order of magnitude smaller – probably on the nanoscale. Novel drug delivery, new storage and biotechnology approaches will be needed. Portable brain tissue imaging methods should be refined. Cognitive group and self-evaluation, support procedures and training should be available where communication with home base is impractical.
5) The search for practical effective countermeasures is far from over. Exercise devices should be replaced with simpler, practical, sturdier solutions. As with radiation, genetic sensitivity to and means for developing increased resistance to bone loss must be explored. Methods for minimizing metabolic stress and boosting immunity are crucial. Options for providing artificial gravity must be revisited. For example, a human-powered 'green' centrifuge that is compact, user-friendly, and provides both passive gravity and exercise in gravity, while also generating power instead of draining resources is the type of thinking that is necessary.
As with Gemini and Apollo, innovations will be developed and unimagined discoveries lie in store. New knowledge and technologies will find related uses as they are appropriately commercialized for use in space and on Earth by industry partners. The ability to preserve healthy life is clearly a prerequisite to successful planning for human space exploration in the new Space Age, but the largest beneficiary, as always, will be us.