NASA awards $1.5m for 'three steps to Mars' astronaut health program

One (very) small leap for humanity's future in space

NASA has announced plans to fund eight short-term research projects aimed at improving our understanding of space's effects on the human body, but all eight will have to share just $1.5 million in funding to accomplish their goals. 

The research projects are being funded as part of NASA's Human Research Program (HRP), and collectively aim to "measure physiological and psychological responses to physical and mental challenges that astronauts may encounter during spaceflight," NASA said. 

Each of the eight projects is getting $150,000 (£124,000) and only a year to get the work done. To further complicate matters, all the work is to be done on Earth "without the need for samples and data from astronauts." That said, it's part of a larger plan - critically supported by the ISS - to train astronauts for long-duration missions.

The HRP is what NASA calls its brain trust to address the five hazards of space travel: Radiation, isolation, distance from Earth, the lack of gravity, and hostile environments. Experiments in three steps to Mars - Earth-bound analogs, the ISS and Artemis missions - are planned, and the experiments in this round of funding are all solidly step 1: the Analogs stage. 

"For this … opportunity, proposals that use the ISS are not permitted," NASA said. "Proposals that use ground analogs, including the [NASA Space Radiation Laboratory], and parabolic or suborbital flights are allowed."

In other words, NASA isn't so much being cheap with the lives of astronauts - these experiments include preliminary, short-term work designed to "provide innovative approaches" to the risks and knowledge gaps in the HRP and its integrated research plan

"The results of these short-term investigations are anticipated to deliver new tools, techniques, or knowledge that could lead to novel breakthroughs," NASA said [PDF]. If successful enough, NASA said it's open to expanding the scope of the projects. 

Experiments include examining changes in bone microarchitecture during spaceflight, muscular atrophy in microgravity, the effects of proton radiation exposure on bone health, and methods to alleviate space radiation-induced brain inflammation, among others. Five universities and three private entities were awarded funds. 

We reached out to the space agency to get more details about the projects, but haven't heard back.

All of the space health problems being researched with this round of HRP funding have been flagged previously. It's well established that low-gravity leads to muscular and skeletal changes, and blood analysis of astronauts has shown that they undergo genetic mutations that could make them more susceptible to cancer and heart disease as well. Brain inflammation is also an established risk, leading researchers earlier this year to recommend a three-year break for astronauts between space missions. ®

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