Scientists Release Largest Trove of Data on How Space Travel Affects the Human Body

A collection of 44 new studies, largely based on a short-duration tourist trip in 2021, provides insight into the health effects of traveling to space

Two astronauts in space with their hair standing up and the Earth behind them
Geoscientist Sian Proctor (left) and physician assistant Hayley Arceneaux (right) on the Inspiration4 mission, a three-day tourist trip to Earth orbit in 2021. Inspiration4 Photos

More and more humans are traveling to space. Several missions in 2021 took private citizens on tourist flights. Last month, six people flew to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere and back. NASA plans to put astronauts back on the moon later this decade, and SpaceX recently tested a rocket it hopes will one day carry humans to Mars.

With even more ambitious crewed flights on the horizon, scientists want to better understand the effects that space’s stressors—such as exposure to radiation and a lack of gravity—have on the human body. Now, a newly released set of 44 papers and troves of data, called the Space Omics and Medical Atlas (SOMA), aims to do just that.

SOMA is the largest collection of data on aerospace medicine and space biology ever compiled. It dramatically expands the amount of information available on how the human body changes during spaceflight. And the first studies to come out of this project improve scientists’ understanding of how space travel affects human health.

“This will allow us to be better prepared when we’re sending humans into space for whatever reason,” Allen Liu, mechanical engineer at the University of Michigan who is not involved in the project, tells Adithi Ramakrishnan of the Associated Press (AP).

Much of the new atlas is based on data collected from the four members of the Inspiration4 mission, a space tourism flight that sent four civilians on a three-day trip to low-Earth orbit in September 2021. The findings suggest people on short-term flights experience some of the same health impacts that astronauts face on long-term trips to space.

“We don’t yet fully understand all of the risks” of long-duration space travel, Amy McGuire, a biomedical ethicist at Baylor College of Medicine who did not contribute to the work, says to Science’s Ramin Skibba. “This is also why it is so important that early space tourists participate in research.”

Space travel poses a number of risks to health. Without Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field to protect them, astronauts are exposed to space radiation, which can increase their risk for cancer and degenerative diseases. Fluid shifts into astronauts’ heads when they are experiencing weightlessness, which can contribute to vision problems, headaches and changes in the structure of the brain. The microgravity environment can also lead to a loss of bone density and atrophied muscles, prompting long-haul astronauts to adopt specific exercise regimens.

But on top of those known risks, the new research highlights other potential issues. One study published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications found that mice exposed to a dose of radiation meant to simulate a round trip to Mars experienced kidney damage and dysfunction. Human travelers might need to be on dialysis on the way back from the Red Planet if they were not protected from this radiation, writes the Guardian’s Ian Sample.

“It’s likely to be a serious issue,” Stephen Walsh, a co-author of the study and clinician scientist at University College London, tells the publication. “It’s very hard to see how that’s going to be okay.”

The health information from the Inspiration4 astronauts sheds light on how space travel can affect private citizens who have not extensively trained for it. The findings also highlight changes to cells and DNA that can occur during short trips to space.

Biomarkers that changed during the Inspiration4 mission returned to normal a few months after the trip, suggesting that space travel doesn’t pose a greater risk to civilians than it does for trained astronauts, Christopher Mason, a geneticist at Cornell University who helped put together the atlas, says to New Scientist’s Clare Wilson.

The Inspiration4 research also suggests women may recover faster from space travel than men. Data from the mission’s two male and two female participants, along with data from 64 NASA astronauts, indicated that gene activity related to the immune system was more disrupted in male astronauts, per the Guardian. And men’s immune systems took longer to return to normal once back on Earth.

Taken together, the new papers could help researchers learn how to ameliorate the harms space travel can cause, Afshin Beheshti, a co-author of the work and a researcher with the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, says to the AP.

And the scientists say nothing in the data suggests humans should not go to space.

“There’s no showstopper,” Mason tells the Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to safely get to Mars and back.”

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