NASA Creates Research Institute to Study Human Spaceflight

Another small step closer to a human mission to Mars.

An outpost on Mars, from the upcoming film “The Martian.” NASA hopes to make it real someday.

NASA’s Human Research Program recently asked the scientific community for proposals to establish what it calls a Translational Research Institute, to study problems related to human exploration of other planets. The institute is meant to be mostly a virtual institute—meaning that it would be a collaboration of researchers working at different locations, similar to the way the agency’s Astrobiology Institute is set up.

The objectives of this new initiative are to put together multi-disciplinary science teams to reduce the risks of humans exploring other planetary bodies, and to ensure crew health on long-term spaceflight. The hope is to include experts from outside NASA, especially physicians. And NASA appears eager to get going—the deadline for proposals is before the end of this year.

This isn’t the usual, small-potatoes type of award. Funding for the institute is anticipated to total $246 million over a 12-year period. The scope of research includes all missions beyond Earth orbit—to the Moon, Mars, and asteroids. Mars is only mentioned once in the call for proposals, however, in a list of problems to be addressed: “From the challenges of providing appetizing food and optimal nutrition to managing the environmental and behavioral risks posed by radiation and the isolated spacecraft to treating potential medical or behavioral conditions that could develop over the course of a 3-year Mars mission….”

Nevertheless, I suspect Mars will be the institute’s main focus, considering that NASA is also starting the process of choosing a possible landing site for a human expedition to Mars. In these ways, the agency is keeping alive the hope that maybe there is still a chance to take this next step for humankind in our lifetime.

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