Longevity and Healthcare Initiatives in SpaceTech

The Core of the Problem

The importance of human longevity advancements to the future of the space economy cannot be overstated. People should be able to not only live and work in space for weeks or months, but also to perform amazing feats of engineering for years and, eventually, decades. The human body is built to live about 90 years in ideal conditions on Earth until the degenerative diseases of aging lead to death. Surviving in harsh space travel, even from several months to a few years, requires enormous physical losses for astronauts. 


With current technology, it would take a crewed mission roughly 6 months to reach Mars, 18 months to reach the Asteroid Belt, and up to 7 years to reach Titan. A few-year journey would probably not be survivable with current medical technology, not to mention trips of multiple decades to reach our nearest neighboring star system. 


The interplanetary environment presents immensely difficult challenges: zero gravity weakens and wreaks havoc on all bodily systems; cosmic radiation delivers mega doses of cell and DNA damage; traveling any appreciable distance will result in decades of aging.

At its core, the aim of human longevity is to counter all three of these prospects. Founders and researchers must devise ways to keep the human body strong, constantly repair cellular damage, and retard aging processes enough to allow the human lifespan to encompass extensive voyages. There are likely many ways to accomplish each of those goals. It is only with the modern expansion of the space economy that it is easier to rationalize the reasons to accelerate our headway into human longevity.

Astronaut Lifespan

Although space travel exposes astronauts to forms of radiation that are uncommon on Earth, and that are linked to cancers and heart problems, a US study suggests this doesn’t significantly shorten their lives. But much of the previous research on mortality rates in astronauts haven’t accounted for the mental and physical demands of this career, or the so-called “healthy worker effect” that leads people with the employment of any kind to typically have fewer medical issues than individuals who are unable to work. According to study co-author Robert Reynolds, astronauts have typically never smoked, leading to a lower risk of heart disease than the general population. Сardiovascular fitness, apparently, is the most important factor in astronaut longevity.

Supporting Human Life in Space: Radiation

Outside the safe cocoon of Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field, subatomic particles zip around at close to the speed of light. Space radiation can penetrate habitats, spacecraft, equipment, spacesuits, and even astronauts themselves. The interaction of ionizing radiation with living organisms can lead to harmful health consequences such as tissue damage, cancer, and cataracts in space and on Earth. The underlying cause of many of these effects is damage to deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). 

Minimizing the physiological changes caused by space radiation exposure is one of the biggest challenges in keeping astronauts fit and healthy as they travel through the solar system.


An important part of every manned mission is radiation dosimetry, which is the process of monitoring, characterizing, and quantifying the radiation environment where astronauts live and work. 


Space station crew members routinely wear physical dosimeters to measure their accumulated exposure and, post-flight, provide a blood sample to measure radiation damage to chromosomes in blood cells. 


Active monitoring of space radiation levels within the Space Station is achieved with dosimeters both to identify the best-shielded locations within the Space Station and to give early warning should radiation levels increase during a mission due to solar storms. All these sources of information are carefully analyzed before, during, and after to help mission planners mitigate the four significant radiation-related health risks that are described in the NASA Bioastronautics Critical Path Roadmap: cancer, radiation damage to the central nervous system, chronic and degenerative tissue diseases, and acute radiation sickness.

Nuclear spacecraft as a step towards solving the radiation problem

Nuclear propulsion, which would involve channeling the immense energy released in splitting the atom to accelerate propellants, like hydrogen, at high speeds, has the potential to revolutionize space travel. For this purpose, a partnership between Rolls-Royce and the UK Space Agency was concluded, bringing together planetary scientists.

Astronauts receive some protection from their spacecraft but better shielding is needed for space missions that venture outside Earth’s magnetosphere, such as a trip to Mars.


As it was mentioned in the scientific paper “Vive la radiorésistance!", the essential methods for enhancing human radioresistance include upregulation of endogenous repair and radioprotective mechanisms, possible leeways into gene therapy in order to enhance radioresistance via the translation of exogenous and engineered DNA repair and radioprotective mechanisms, the substitution of organic molecules with fortified isoforms, and methods of slowing metabolic activity while preserving cognitive function.

 
Moreover, enhancing human radioresistance is likely to extend the healthspan of human spacefarers as well.

Supporting Human Life in Space:

Bone and Muscle Loss

The human body evolved within the constant pull of Earth’s gravity. In the microgravity environment aboard the orbiting International Space Station, bones and muscles don’t have to support the body’s mass (weight on Earth). Without Earth-like exercise, astronauts would experience bone and muscle loss or atrophy during their stays in space. Bone and muscle atrophy also occurs from normal aging, sedentary lifestyles and illnesses. This may cause serious health issues from injuries due to falls or osteoporosis for both astronauts and people on Earth. 

The International Space Station Food Intake Tracker (ISS FIT) iPad app, recently delivered to the space station, simplifies the way astronauts track their meals. The ISS FIT app gives astronauts real-time feedback about their dietary habits and offers greater insight for physicians and researchers on Earth looking to keep crews healthy and fit. 


While similar to apps available on Earth, the ISS FIT is designed specifically for use in space. With days numbered from one to 365, the food database includes foods available on the space station, including those from international partner agencies. The app does not require internet access to sync with the food database. The app reports nutrients specifically of concern for astronauts, ensuring adequate calorie consumption, minimizing sodium intake and maintaining hydration to reduce kidney stone risk.


The app, developed through NASA’s Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation, used crowdsourcing techniques hosted by TopCoder. Designed for use on the space station, the solution had to meet strict criteria, offer multiple user options and work without internet connectivity. The app allows crew members to record foods available on the space station. It gives astronauts options to record foods from a checklist, search tool, using audio recording, taking photos or scanning barcodes, if available.

Supporting Human Life in Space:

Food

NASA is looking at ways to provide astronauts with nutrients in a long-lasting, easily absorbed form—freshly grown fresh fruits and vegetables. Simply packing some multivitamins will not be enough to keep astronauts healthy as they explore deep space. They will need fresh produce. The challenge is how to do that in a closed environment without sunlight or Earth’s gravity.

Veggie

The Vegetable Production System (Veggie) is a space garden residing on the space station. Veggie’s purpose is to help NASA study plant growth in microgravity. The Veggie garden is about the size of a carry-on piece of luggage and typically holds six plants. Each plant grows in a “pillow” filled with a clay-based growth media and fertilizer. The pillows are important to help distribute water, nutrients and air in a healthy balance around the roots. Otherwise, the roots would either drown in water or be engulfed by air because of the way fluids in space tend to form bubbles. 
In the absence of gravity, plants use other environmental factors, such as light, to orient and guide growth. A bank of light emitting diodes (LEDs) above the plants produces a spectrum of light suited for the plants’ growth. Since plants reflect a lot of green light and use more red and blue wavelengths, the Veggie chamber typically glows magenta pink.

 

To 2020 Veggie had successfully grown a variety of plants, including three types of lettuce, Chinese cabbage, mizuna mustard, red Russian kale and zinnia flowers.
Team at Kennedy Space Center envisions planting more produce in the future, such as tomatoes and peppers. Foods like berries, certain beans and other antioxidant-rich foods would have the added benefit of providing some space radiation protection for crew members who eat them.

Advanced Plant Habitat

The Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) is a growth chamber on station for plant research. It uses LED lights and a porous clay substrate with controlled release fertilizer to deliver water, nutrients and oxygen to the plant roots.
But unlike Veggie, it is enclosed and automated with cameras and more than 180 sensors that are in constant interactive contact with a team. Its water recovery and distribution, atmosphere content, moisture levels and temperature are all automated. It has more colors of LED lights than Veggie, with red, green, and blue lights, but also white, far red and even infrared to allow for nighttime imaging.


When a harvest is ready for research studies, the crew collects samples from the plants, freezes or chemically fixes them to preserve them, and sends them back down to Earth.

Biological Research

in Canisters

The Biological Research in Canisters (BRIC) is a facility used to study the effects of space on organisms small enough to grow in petri dishes, such as yeast and microbes. BRIC-LED is the latest version, which added light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to support biology such as plants, mosses, algae and cyanobacteria that need light to make their food.


In 2020 BRIC-LED was undergoing hardware validation tests. Scientists wanted to ensure the LEDs don’t get too hot for the plants and do other system checks. Soon, researchers such as Dr. Simon Gilroy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison will use it to conduct studies.

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