Artemis I launches health study for female astronauts

When NASA’s Artemis I mission launches to the moon later this month, the Orion space capsule will have two special passengers, Helga and Zohar.

The pair are actually mannequin torsos called phantoms, inspired by hospital training tools and made to mimic human bones, soft tissue, and internal organs of an adult woman. They originate from joint work with the Israel Space Agency and the German Aerospace Center and are designed with sensors that can map radiation exposure levels throughout the body. Specifically, The Zohar wears a radiation protective vest designed to protect the actual astronauts slated for future Artemis missions, including the first woman to go to the Moon.

The last time humans set foot on the moon or crossed low Earth orbit was at the end of the Apollo program in 1972. Things changed in 1978 when the first female American astronaut candidate was selected, a young Sally Ride.

Today, NASA’s astronaut team is even more diverse. But that’s not reflected in the data that informs their safety protocols. That’s why the institution and its collaborators are working on new research to understand how different human bodies respond to the extreme environments of space. We are starting an experiment. all For astronauts to work safely.

[Related: A brief history of menstruating in space]

“We stand on the shoulders of giants and have made a lot of progress, but we still need a lot to understand. [the biological nuances between astronauts]Jennifer Fogarty, Chief Scientific Officer of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health, which is sponsored by the NASA Human Research Program and led by Baylor College of Medicine, said. Her goal, she said, is to build spaceflight tools and health care regimens for astronauts to “empower the human body to perform the tasks it’s expected of us and reduce the chances of colliding with it.” is,” she says.

Two female mannequins with space gear on a table for the Artemis I mission
Zohar has the vest in front and Helga in the back. DLRMore


To look for patterns, researchers like Fogarty have collected data on how gender differences affect the health of astronauts. But so far, research into how women’s bodies respond to extreme environments in space has been “pretty limited,” she says, having flown more than 600 people in space. Did. Of those, she is less than 100 women. Tools like Helga and Zohar help collect data in a way that doesn’t rely on historical trends.

Scientifically, it is difficult to extrapolate reliable gender differences or gender-specific medical trends based on these figures, as some characteristics may simply be due to individual differences. When an astronaut developed a blood clot during his stay on the International Space Station in 2020, a study was conducted to determine whether the use of hormonal contraceptives to control the menstrual cycle increases the risk of clots during spaceflight. . Her review of 38 female astronauts, published later that year, concluded otherwise. However, given such a small sample size and how rare blood clots associated with hormonal contraceptives are, the question remains open.

In some ways, Fogerty says, women have proven to be particularly “resilient” during spaceflight. For example, the visual acuity of male astronauts appears to be more affected by swelling around the optic nerve in weightlessness than that of female astronauts. However, according to a 2014 study, female astronauts statistically experience orthostatic intolerance (the inability to stand for long periods of time without fainting) when they return to Earth.

Artemis I Mission Space Mannequin Gray and Pink Internal Parts
A radiation-sensitive layer on a mannequin emulating a female body in the Artemis I mission. DLRMore

Radioactive contamination from space

Beyond short-term conditions and body changes, much of the interest in human health in space focuses on exposure to cosmic radiation from the explosion of stars and galaxies. Most of the available data comes from laboratory studies on rodents or observations of atomic bomb survivors, says Fogarty: It suggests that female survivors are more likely than male to develop lung cancer. shows a pattern.

Because women appear to suffer more side effects from radiation sickness than men, NASA recently set a permissible level of radiation exposure for all astronauts by restricting them to what was previously the permissible dose for a 35-year-old female. Criteria for uniform exposure have been updated.

However, galactic cosmic rays are different from the radiation of nuclear weapons. For one thing, exposures from nuclear accidents and acts of war are two-dimensional, meaning that certain organs may be exposed to more radiation than others. But in space, radiation “is thought to be ubiquitous,” says Fogerty. Some calculations suggest that radiation exposure rates on the Moon are about 2.6 times higher than those experienced by astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Still, in his week on the ISS, an astronaut could be exposed to the same amount of radiation as a human would spend her year-plus on Earth.

Radiation comes from all angles in space, so devising physical barriers such as space suits and protective vests can be difficult. It is therefore important to understand how all human organs are affected by radiation exposure.

Artemis I spacecraft female and male mannequins in orbit mockup
A mannequin en route to the Moon in the Artemis I mission. NASA/Lockheed Martin/DLR

That’s where Helga and Zohar come in. The female “phantom” is part of Matroschka Her Astrorad Radiation Experiment (MARE). Inside, a grid of 10,000 passive her sensors and her 34 active radiation detectors provide data for researchers about which parts of the body come into most contact with electromagnetic waves during spaceflight. to collect Some organs are protected by a layer of soft tissue, while others are not. This allows engineers to build more targeted systems to protect the areas of the body most at risk from harmful radiation.

“When it comes to biological effects, in addition to the differences between men and women, we get differences in various body organs, such as the difference between the brain and the uterus,” NASA’s Johnson said at a press conference this week. said Ramona Gaza, who leads the MARE science team at the Space Center.

The Artemis I experiment, designed to study the effects of radiation, is more than just two torsos. Missions also include an array of living organisms such as yeast, fungi, algae, and plant seeds. In a NASA project called BioSentinel, the Orion capsule will launch a CubeSat into lunar orbit, loaded with yeast cells to test how organisms survive in a deep space environment.

[Related: Long spaceflights could be bad for our eyes]

In total, the Artemis I mission will launch ten CubeSats. The rest study aspects of the lunar environment that prove important for characterizing the safety of future manned trips to the Moon. They include tools for studying space weather and bursts of solar radiation, tools for mapping water ice reservoirs on the moon, and a small lander from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

Helga and Zohar aren’t the only “passengers” on Artemis I. The stuffed sheep is joined by a male body mannequin equipped with sensors to measure various aspects of the environment around the moon. Flight involving radiation exposure. Helga and Zohar don’t wear spacesuits, but Commander Muunikin Campos uses his system of survival for the first-generation Orion crew, which Artemis astronauts use when real humans return to the moon. to wear

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