In The News

Capitol Hill takes up astronaut health concerns

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Washington, December 18, 2016 | comments
By Tom Bassing
The Galveston County Daily News
Dec. 18, 2016 | Link

Alan Shepard, on a bright Florida morning, was eased into his cramped Mercury capsule Freedom 7 mounted atop a Redstone rocket. At precisely 9:34 a.m. Eastern time on May 5, 1961, the countdown reached zero, and Shepard then rose into space, becoming the first American to do so.

Since then, NASA’s spacefaring roster has grown by 337 other astronauts.

It has long been known that those who venture beyond Earth’s protective atmosphere are bombarded by constant radiation and suffer loss of bone density and other abnormalities due to weightlessness, yet, to date, little beyond NASA’s voluntary long-term study of astronauts’ health has examined the potentially harmful effects of spaceflight.

That soon may change.

The U.S. House of Representatives on Dec. 7 passed, by a vote of 413 to none, the “To Research, Evaluate, Assess and Treat (TREAT) Astronauts Act.”

The legislation was sponsored by Rep. Brian Babin, whose district includes the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, and is expected to be taken up by the Senate as early as next month.

“As a nation, we have obligations to those we put in harm’s way,” said Babin, who chairs the House Subcommittee for Space. “Our astronauts put their lives on the line for our nation. We need to take care of them.”
Gazing into the future

In addition to overseeing the long-term health of astronauts and payload specialists — non-NASA employees who fly aboard space missions to oversee experiments and other cargo sent aloft — Babin’s bill is intended to augment NASA’s Lifetime Surveillance of Astronaut Health database.

The information gathered from that study is designed to keep astronauts healthy during proposed future flights, including to Mars.

“There’s an ethical component: taking care of our astronauts’ health and safety,” Brad Rhodes, the assistant director for crew health and safety at the Johnson Space Center, said of Babin’s bill. “And there’s a scientific component through which we can accumulate additional data.”

NASA encourages astronauts to participate in its long-term health study, but it is strictly voluntary.

“John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, they took part and would return here for tests,” Rhodes said of the first American to orbit the Earth and the first man to step on the moon. Yet, only about 70 percent of former astronauts agree to return for testing, he said, and, at that, NASA is limited in the care it can provide them.

“There’s a certain amount of observation, but that’s all we’re able to do,” he said. “If we see something, all we can do is return that astronaut with our diagnosis to his or her primary-care physician.

“With the successful enactment of TREAT, NASA would be able to treat the crew member. Our experts are the most capable at treating our astronauts.”

Meanwhile, the number of veteran astronauts, those whose long-term deterioration might provide the most meaningful data, is diminishing. With Glenn’s death on Dec. 8, 276 of the nation’s total of 338 astronauts remain alive.

‘A whole new world’

As it is, the duration of space missions — and thereby the exposure astronauts face — has lengthened over the years.

Missions during the Mercury program lasted mere hours.

Those for the Gemini program, Mercury’s successor, were counted in days. Apollo, the program that in July 1969 landed Armstrong on the moon, entailed missions lasting no more than a couple of weeks, similar to the duration of flights aboard the space shuttle.

Now, however, missions aboard the International Space Station can last half a year or more, upping astronauts’ overall health risks.

“We’re now in a whole new world with the International Space Station,” Rhodes said. “What we don’t understand is what long-term effects will be. We look at bone loss as bone structure starts to demineralize; we look at radiation exposure; we look at eye damage; we look at cancers and cataracts that might be related to crew members’ time in space.

“These things might not show up for 20 years,” he said. “That’s why this bill is so important.”
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