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SpaceShipTwo passenger
As interest grows in space tourism offerings from Virgin Galactic and others, so does the need for more biomedical information and training requirements. (credit: Virgin Galactic)

Biomedical considerations addressed at recent space conferences

I recently attended three space conferences, which all had tracks or presentations focused in some measure on the issues involved in launching civilian passengers into space. This encourages me, because it indicates that the embryonic industry of personal spaceflight is beginning to take seriously the transition of thinking exclusively like engineers to focusing on the all-important customer service aspects of the business.

The FAA COMSTAC (Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee) meeting was held May 17–18 May in Washington DC. The first day was devoted to breakout sessions, and the one I attended was the Reusable Launch Vehicle Working Group. The workshop was overwhelmingly devoted to biomedical and training issues. A Wyle Labs representative presented on a commercial human space flight data collection study performed in conjunction with the Aerospace Corporation. The research revealed that there are several key factors that should be addressed as more civilians engage in spaceflight. He indicated that this work was preliminary and incomplete, and that follow-on work should be instituted to develop a comprehensive database.

I emphasized that while the training can definitely provide physiological skills and conditioning, just like training for a marathon, perhaps even more important is the creation of mental sets that develop the confidence and expectations in private space travelers that they can handle the pressures of launch and reentry.

An FAA representative presented on phase one of a congressionally-mandated study to explore human space flight safety and standards. He was seeking input from the workshop on how to go about designing phase two of the study, which must be completed by 2008. The executive director of the Personal Spaceflight Federation (PSF) presented on the activities of that organization. Several attendees vociferously suggested that PSF engage more stringently in exploring safety and training issues. The presenter indicated that is it a concern of the member companies, and they are discussing it, but no consensus has yet developed.

Three spaceflight training companies made presentations about their programs, one being given by me regarding NASTAR Center. All were well-received, and one presenter for Barrios Technologies stimulated vigorous discussion when she suggested that a method of training certification be created. While many opinions were expressed and no conclusion was reached, nonetheless it indicates that the various players are now taking such issues quite seriously.

Mike Kelly, chairman of the RLV working group, suggested it could be very valuable to explore the creation of a COMSTAC sub-committee for the express purpose of addressing training and standards issues, and that this should be comprised of representatives from the three working groups: RLV, Launch Operations and Support, and Risk Management. He brought this up again in the full session on 18 May, and it caused a bit of animated discussion. These issues are definitely being recognized as increasingly important.

The International Space Development Conference in Dallas May 24–28 ran a well-attended space medicine track. Representatives from Wyle, Space Medicine Associates, Paragon, and NASTAR Center made presentations. The Paragon representative made some very valid points. All the data that we have collected so far is based on rather fit individuals that conform to the NASA profile. We are now considering sending people to space who exceed these parameters, in height, weight, physical conditioning, and several other factors. This puts rather intense demands on the cabin conditioning systems and ergonomic designs of seats, pressure suits, and other supporting technology. What are the new parameters? That is an unknown quantity at present.

The Space Medicine Associates presenter indicated that several factors will have to be considered as the industry engages civilian passengers, including disease control, alcohol or other substance use and abuse, handling prescriptions, dealing with claustrophobia, managing medical emergencies, and managing personality incompatibilities amongst passengers. All these topics were vociferously discussed during the open question period at the end, and again, although no solid conclusions were reached, the scope of the problem was beginning to be recognized.

At the Rutgers Lunar Settlements Symposium in early June, another representative of Space Medicine Associates discussed the potential showstoppers for long-duration space settlement. They are: effects of lunar dust on biological systems, radiation, long-term exposure to hypogravity (living on the Moon or in open space), and the synergistic combination of these and other factors into an unpleasant mixture of contraindicated conditions. He said that at present technology levels, these may be insurmountable conditions, but nothing precludes the development of mitigating technologies in the future. How far out that may be, though, he could not say.

Many opinions on safety and training standards are being vociferously expressed, but the end result will be a more focused industry, ready to provide a safer, smoother experience for the end user, the private customer who wants a ride into space.

I presented on the NASTAR Center after this presentation, and I repeated what I had said at the other conferences, namely, that training for space launch can go a long way toward beginning to collect some of the necessary date to understand the effects of spaceflight on a morphologically diverse population. I emphasized that while the training can definitely provide physiological skills and conditioning, just like training for a marathon, perhaps even more important is the creation of mental sets. These mental sets are not soft skills; they develop the confidence and expectations in private space travelers that they can handle the pressures of launch and reentry, and they can control their impulses toward getting sick. These are precisely the skills and abilities that the commercial suborbital launch community will need, in a highly developed state, if personal spaceflight is ever to advance far beyond the novelty stage.

I believe that the debate which is just now getting underway in earnest, as exemplified by these very rich and productive encounters at several space-focused gatherings, are an excellent beginning to addressing these thorny issues. Many opinions on safety and training standards are being vociferously expressed, but the end result will be a more focused industry, ready to provide a safer, smoother experience for the end user, the private customer who wants a ride into space.


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