2001 NSS Roadmap: Political Barriers to Space Settlement

From Ad Astra January-February 2001
by Charles D. Walker

Lack of Public Interest

Human settlement of space beyond Earth will rely upon a major study and development effort. Spaceflight requires energies to overcome gravity that are beyond any individual’s means to master. The science of biological systems that will support sustained human existence still needs to be better understood. The technologies that will maintain the necessities of human life off the Earth with near perfect reliability are largely yet to be developed. These discoveries, breakthroughs, innovations, and labors will take the efforts of teams of people and the organized resources to match. Moreover, the public — not necessarily all of the public, but some significant number of the public of many democratic countries — must be interested in seeing humans settling space and worlds beyond the Earth. Today, public interest in the development of space is lacking.

This hasn’t always been the case. In the early 1960s, people were enthralled by cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s first orbit of Earth in the days following the event. All were interested in the feat’s prospects. In the United States, that interest had the character of a competition. In the view of the American political and military leadership, the hearts and minds of the non-communist world were at stake. The public felt defeated at not being the first to place a human in space. In that charged environment, picking up the challenge of “sending a man to the Moon and returning him safely to Earth,” as President John Kennedy put it, was easy. Achieving that goal took the resources equivalent to fighting a war, with technical innovation a constant requirement. The public agreed with the effort, so fueling it with federal funds and industrial resources was no problem. The delivery of humans to the Moon and back was achieved in less than a decade.

Shortly thereafter, human space exploration faltered. By the 1970s, the public no longer saw great value in continuing publicly supported human spaceflight. A lack of political leadership on the matter of space exploration and development in the United States, a war, and economic fluctuations all caused the public’s interest to fade and drift. Those who wanted to keep the flame alive in the public mind and heart found that the emotion arising from beating a foe to an objective in space could no longer be tapped. Other public “hot buttons” would have to be touched. But the task had become hard: many things have changed since the halcyon days of space exploration.

Why space fell from grace

A change in the public’s perception of the thrill and novelty of spaceflight is one reason for its diminished popularity. Since the 1970s, television, more opportunities for travel, and the personal computer and Internet connectivity have brought rapid and accessible “adventure” to the public. The public has become habituated to instant gratification. Encouraged by today’s entertainment experiences, and fast access to terrestrial getaways and “extreme” sports, people want to see a new twist, a new level, each time a “story” is presented. The promise of adventure and discovery implicit in the space program has become a slow motion, repetitious failure-to-perform in the eyes of the public.

In addition, government space travel has been portrayed as an intensely planned and expensively executed military-type operation. NASA, the federal agency charged with the exploration and development of space in the United States, insisted upon conducting those objectives in a “war-like” fashion: all activities were organized and executed in a formalized manner, and it all was revealed to a curious population in rigorous and dry reports. Americans have this impression reinforced with every other astronaut biography they hear, as so many are military officers. The military influence on American space affairs is not only true but also has led to the impressive success of American space activities. But perhaps technology and experience can let us reduce our tension a bit. Perhaps space operations can still be successfully completed while conveying them to the public in a less militaristic light.

After Neil Armstrong’s first step on the Moon, what do people remember about space exploration? Perhaps it is Al Shepard driving a golf ball into the black lunar sky. Shortly thereafter, people stopped paying attention to space. For decades, with the exception of each rocket launch’s few minutes of smoke and fire, government space programs have exposed the public to cold calculations and emotionless tasks in space. NASA has discouraged innovative, publicly interesting human spaceflights. For much of the past three decades, the high ground of space has been left to automated communications, observing, and scientific satellites. From time to time, NASA launched a robotic reconnaissance mission to other solar system bodies, occasionally garnering brief public acclaim when the mission succeeded. Human space travel has been limited to expensive forays into low. Earth orbit (LEO). NASA is not solely responsible for this behavior: the various American presidential administrations and Congresses have directed NASA to minimize its self-promotion. The political bosses don’t want another popular agency and program demanding federal money they want to spend otherwise. So spaceflight became boring.

Another popular attitude about spaceflight is that it is risky and scary. Well, it is risky, and new experiences can be scary. This issue needs to be carefully weighed and addressed with the public. The energies that are necessary to take humans “out” into space are tremendous. But on a relative scale, so were the energies invested less than one hundred years ago that eventually led to lofting people “up” into the air and aboard cross-country flights. Moreover, great progress has been made over the past forty years in reducing the risk of short-term spaceflight. The Project Mercury astronauts had an 80 percent probability of getting to orbit and back again successfully. Today, the Space Shuttle delivers astronauts and cargo to orbit and returns them to Earth with a reliability three times greater.

It will soon be demonstrated that suborbital spaceflight can be carried out at levels of risk comparable to civil aviation today: one accident in five hundred thousand flights. Advances in developing orbital spaceflight will not be far behind. Even at reliabilities around that of military aviation, less than one accident in twenty thousand flights, there will be large numbers of voluntary space fliers. A private space tourism company, Space Adventures, offers public flights aboard a Russian military Mig-25 to an altitude of 25 kilometers, and this opportunity has been accepted by hundreds of civilian passengers. The risks of high-speed, high-altitude flight as it is available today are acceptable to a growing number of people. As these experiences proliferate, so will the perception that “spaceflight might not be too risky after all.”

A related issue to the public interest in space exploration is the cost of spaceflight. In the 1950s and 1960s, cost was not an issue. Our human space goals were treated like, if not actual, military objectives. But once the United States achieved the consensus objective, the matter of cost became a concern. Public attitudes on the expense of space activities run deep, I believe. Ten years ago, a survey attempting to gauge the American public’s knowledge of the cost of the NASA space program found that two-thirds of the respondents thought the NASA budget was five to fifty times larger than is actually the case! It is no wonder that numerous other surveys asking for an opinion on what to do with NASA’s budget hear back: cut it.

Government and industry are today addressing the costly nature of space activities, but reducing the price of access to space remains a daunting issue. Although federal government investment in lower cost propulsion systems and designs is underway, the physics of climbing even halfway out of the Earth’s gravity hole are immense. Still, there are now serious efforts to privately develop space launchers that are not only less risky than current rockets but also cheaper. If more of the public knew that the X Prize and commercial ventures in human spaceflight were close at hand, the impression that spaceflight is expensive because it’s done by the government just might begin to fade. The public desire to see more government spending on space activities could be higher if people discovered that these activities were actually less costly than they thought.

The potential for change

We have seen that there are a number of problems with the public’s awareness of space exploration and development. Misconceptions, misinformation, and missed opportunities are part of the history of the American, former Soviet, and international cooperative space programs. Today, new and exciting changes are appearing, but not in the American human spaceflight program. The new Russian space program is showing the West how to promote and popularize space activities. Pepsi and milk commercials have been made in space aboard the Mir space station complex. And the Russians, along with a private firm called MirCorp, are on the verge of launching a fare-paying private citizen, a “Citizen Explorer,” to Mir. Real opportunities for a radical change, a dramatic improvement, in the public’s awareness and attitude when asked about “outer space” thus seem to be at hand.

While the recent progress in the popularization of space is necessary and gratifying, it is still far from the National Space Society’s vision of “space settlement.” Indeed, spending a few minutes, hours, or even months in LEO is exciting, memorable, and much more. But in LEO a person is within an hour of being back on the Earth’s surface. That person is also under the umbrella of the Van Allen radiation belts. Settling outer space, with people living and working permanently in high Earth orbit, in free space, or on another planetary body, is another matter. As extraterrestrial environments are antithetical to life as we know it, challenges and threats will abound. Radiation, suffocation, unknown biological effects of low gravity, and isolation are just some of the challenges to be faced in long-duration space travel. And when people have the opportunity to build a settlement on the Moon, Mars or an asteroid, the question of reliably obtaining the necessary supplies and resources will add immensely to those challenges. The public is going to have to get familiar with a frontier, or “wild west”-type, challenge that is the reality of the long-term, human exploration, development and settlement of space.

Today, we in the United States are increasingly risk averse in our governmental public policies. The demand for insurance, financial security, and faultless everything is pervasive in our society. On the other hand, “extreme” sports and activities are increasingly popular among not only observers but also participants. A key may be found here to public acceptance of the increased risks and certain long-term human costs necessary in achieving the settlement of space.

How do we, the National Space Society, make and accelerate that necessary change in public interest in things to do with space? We can assist in four primary ways. First, we can educate ourselves on the issues. Second, the NSS can inform non-members on those issues. The third way we can change the public attitude is to actively recruit people in this pursuit. And fourth, each of us, as active NSS members, can promote by various means the changes that are so necessary.

Education. We owe it to ourselves to be as informed as possible on the issues noted here and more. The strongest reason I can think of is to combat the ignorance, sometimes laughable, that holds back many of the public, the press, elected officials, even academics from understanding and appreciating space. How many times have you heard reported the results of the 1998 survey of American adults in which almost half of those asked thought the sun revolves around the Earth? Too many elected congressional representatives have no idea how real is the possibility of a large meteor or comet strike on the Earth within our lifetimes. If they did, they would listen more carefully to our arguments promoting the establishment of off-Earth settlements as soon as practical. The NSS can strengthen its chartered function as an educational organization in other ways. For instance, we could develop and distribute to magnet schools focused science course supplements on settling space.

Inform others. “Outreach” is the current buzzword for getting a new viewpoint to others. Use any means that is legal, honest, ethical, moral, and effective. Traditional methods of communication are perhaps still the most effective. Talk to individuals: your neighbor over the back fence or your relatives over dinner. But don’t stop with a single “Say, did you know….” Repeat it, several different ways. People will be more likely to remember. Talk to groups: school groups, professional organizations, your office lunch bunch. Start a buzz.

Recruit others. Once you have their ears (the hook is in), invite them to join the NSS or your local chapter by giving them a membership form already filled out (sink the hook); you might even offer to pay a couple of dollars of their membership (sugar!). The NSS should investigate new membership categories and tools. Perhaps “memberships” that will deliver only electronic copies of Ad Astra. The NSS also needs to identify why membership renewals are not higher — and fix the reason. But before any of us can recruit, we must find those others who are interested. Ask.

Promoting public attitude changes. I believe any of us can promote change — and do it effectively. Chapters can help by organizing “making change happen” workshops. The techniques are not “rocket science,” but they can help in many aspects of each of our lives. Or how about helping your son or daughter write a “spacey” column in his or her school newspaper (including activist invective, of course). Those of us in academic circles can suggest to colleagues — or perform ourselves — lines of research that seek answers to the specific questions that need answers before settlers can grow their own food on an asteroid, the Moon, or Mars. People don’t need to be members of the NSS to help push us farther toward our vision.

I absolutely believe that humans will live, work, and build societies on other worlds. I am convinced that it needs to happen sooner rather than later so that living human genes continue into the future. But there are big barriers keeping us from soon achieving that vision. We must work toward overcoming or dropping those barriers. That is a reason for the National Space Society Roadmap to Space Settlement. To that end the above ideas are just a few of my general thoughts. There have to be many more, many better, ideas. You, we, need to be developing the ideas, and putting them to work. Ad Astra!

Charles D. Walker is an astronaut who has flown three times on the Space Shuttle as a payload specialist and is past President of the National Space Society.

From Ad Astra January-February 2001
by Linda Plush, M.S.N., F.N.P.
and Eleanor A. O’Rangers, Pharm.D.

Perceived healthcare risk of space activities

Studies over the last 30 years have revealed changes in virtually all of the human body’s systems in space. The time-course of the various effects on the human body differ, and can be roughly organized into short-term (less than one month) and long-term (greater than one month) effects. In addition, some effects occur while in space, while others manifest themselves upon return to Earth.

Selected short-term effects while in space

Motion sickness, a response to the brain’s “confusion” in attempting to reconcile what the eyes see (“up” is the ceiling of a spacecraft, “down” is the floor) with what the inner ear senses (no “up” or “down” is perceived since the pull of gravity is absent) generally occurs during the first few days of flight. Currently, in the American human space program, motion sickness is treated with intramuscular injections of the drug promethazine, but this does not eliminate symptoms in all people. Moreover, research has yet to identify who may be predisposed to motion sickness during spaceflight. Pre-medication before launch is not possible since it is preferable to treat only those susceptible to motion sickness. Those not predisposed may experience undesirable side effects, such as drowsiness, from pre-medication. Additional research needs to be done to identify who is at risk, and to learn if there are other medications or methods, such as biofeedback, for treating motion sickness.

Body fluid redistribution during spaceflight, from the lower extremities to a relatively even distribution throughout the body, causes nasal congestion, facial puffiness, and headache (and relatively slim legs!). This phenomenon may exacerbate motion sickness as well. The body responds by initially increasing urination; after several days of flight, an individual is dehydrated relative to the amount of body fluid present prior to flight. The dehydration may predispose individuals to the development of kidney stones; indeed, data from astronauts and cosmonauts suggests that they are two to three times more at risk for developing kidney stones in space than is the public on Earth. The pain associated with a kidney stone, much less the potential risk to kidney function, could be devastating to a space traveler — and a mission. Research is still attempting to identify ways of reducing the risk of kidney stone formation in space. It is also likely that fluid redistribution affects the body’s distribution of potassium and magnesium, which could predispose people to irregular heartbeats. Missed heartbeats and runs of irregular beats have been observed in both astronauts and cosmonauts. While these events are generally benign, they could be dangerous, particularly if associated with a drop in blood pressure or loss of consciousness. No research has specifically addressed ways of preventing or treating irregular heartbeats in space.

Insomnia due to shift work and/or changes in circadian rhythm is currently treated with medications that produce drowsiness. Based upon anecdotal information that has emerged from Space Shuttle medical debriefs, insomnia tends to be a problem throughout a mission. It is of some concern that chronic use of medications for sleep could impair alertness during the day. Moreover, an individual could become dependent on the use of these medications.

Other short-term effects of spaceflight, such as skeletal and heart muscle weakening, bone loss, and radiation exposure are generally limited and are likely to pose minimal risk to an otherwise healthy space traveler. However, those with known heart disease, osteoporosis, or even cancer may be disqualified from space travel as the potential for worsening their medical conditions exists.

Selected short-term effects when returning to Earth

Despite short-term exposure to the space environment, there are some concerns for space travelers once returning to Earth — or any partial gravity environment, for that matter. It is possible for motion sickness to recur, and maintaining balance can be a problem. Moreover, because of the relative dehydration induced by spaceflight, an individual may become dizzy when initially standing upon return from flight; fainting is also possible. These potential problems argue for medical protocols to be in place to allow space travelers the ability to readjust to Earth’s gravity before going home.

Selected long-term effects while in space and when returning to Earth

In addition to the above medical issues, there are other, potentially more serious consequences of spaceflight that accumulate with longer exposure to weightlessness. Muscle weakening and bone loss become of greater concern; currently, only weight-bearing and aerobic exercise are known to slow, but not prevent, these effects. Research is clearly needed to identify ways of arresting these progressive problems. While not a danger per se while in space, muscle weakening and bone loss become an issue once an individual returns to Earth or another partial gravity environment. What if a space traveler trips and falls? Bones weakened by months in space could easily fracture. Exercise tolerance may be significantly impaired; walking may easily cause fatigue. No space traveler would desire to return from a space vacation to the Moon with the prospect of requiring months of physical rehabilitation. With our current incomplete medical knowledge, however, this prospect may not be out of the question.

Radiation exposure is also of greater concern with longer stays in space. While trips into low Earth orbit may somewhat limit radiation exposure (depending on the orbit’s relation to the Van Allen belts, which shield Earth from excessive radiation), voyages beyond Earth orbit increase the likelihood of exposure to galactic cosmic radiation that can cause mutations of DNA. Cancer risk is likely increased. Travelers, and particularly spacecraft crew members, will need to wear dosimeters in order to measure their radiation exposure during flight. As with the astronauts, a total lifetime exposure limit will probably need to be established; travelers or crew members exceeding that limit will be disqualified from further flights. Individuals with a history of cancer, or perhaps a strong family history of cancer, may be prevented from flying at all. Research into the risks associated with radiation exposure in the space environment, proper spacecraft shielding,
medical treatments, and even nutritional supplementation are all in their infancy but will be critical to the traveling public if space travel is to become a reality for them.

Other medical issues to consider with longer-duration spaceflight include anemia (loss of red blood cells), which could affect exercise capacity, and immune system changes, which could affect wound healing and the ability to fight infection. Psychological issues, known to be a problem in closed-environments, such as winter stays at the National Science Foundation’s research facility in the Antarctic, or submarines, could also arise in confining spacecraft and could lead to interpersonal conflict. None of these medical issues have received significant research attention in terms of full characterization of their time courses, their consequences, and their potential to be prevented or treated.

What the NSS can do to ensure space access for all

While there is considerable knowledge of the types of medical conditions space travelers could encounter, it is clear that much work has yet to be done, particularly in identifying prevention and treatment options. Some individuals, such as Harrison Schmitt, Apollo astronaut and former U.S. Senator from New Mexico, have criticized NASA for not doing enough background work to pave the way for public space access. “NASA has wasted at least 25 of the last 30 years of manned spaceflight by neglecting to undertake serious, well-planned scientific investigations of the effects of spaceflight on the human body.” He has also stated that NASA does not have a good plan in place to take care of sick or injured crew members. Others, such as group behavior specialist Philip R. Harris, have also commented that NASA “still neglects behavioral sciences studies on psychological and sociological aspects of individuals and group behavior in isolated, confined environments aloft” (P. R. Harris, Living and Working in Space: Human Behavior, Culture and Organization (2nd ed.), New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, 1996: 63-72). More recently, the structure of the life sciences program for the International Space Station has been severely criticized by groups such as the National Research Council, which has prompted several administrative changes within NASA’s life sciences programs (E. A. O’Rangers, “The Station and Medical Research: Fact vs. Fiction,” Ad Astra, July/August 2000: 24-28).

The National Space Society can encourage focused attention to the healthcare-related barriers to a spacefaring civilization by:

1. Encouraging open debate on spaceflight passenger regulations with the FAA, NASA, commercial space developers, healthcare professionals (including physicians, nurses, pharmacists and nutritionists), and most importantly, the public. Some regulation of space access is probable, but it is critical to engage in frank discussion that takes into account a variety of viewpoints in order to create logical guidelines that will not completely prevent the public from being able to fly in space. Moreover, regulations should be regularly modified as new space-related health information is announced.

2. Recommending that public space travel be developed on a progressively more ambitious scale. As the length of time exposed to weightlessness appears to increase the risk to an individual’s health, suborbital flights should be explored first, followed by longer stays in Earth orbit, and then voyages to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

3. Acknowledging the long overdue, and appropriate, changes in space life sciences management at NASA. NASA will continue to be a key player in human spaceflight, and, therefore, should take a leading role in conducting research aimed at maximizing the potential for astronauts — and the public — to fly in space.

4. Supporting agencies like the National Research Council in their efforts to raise awareness of deficiencies in NASA’s space life sciences programs through publications and other means.

5. Encouraging commercial space companies to become active partners with NASA and other governmental space agencies in the conduct of relevant and necessary research to maximize the health and safety of public space travelers. The International Space Station is an ideal platform to foster such collaboration. While NASA and the federal government have made some half-hearted overtures to the commercial sector in this regard, this effort should be given even higher prioritization by both parties.

6. Encouraging NASA and other commercial space companies to aggressively recruit a variety of healthcare professionals to their organizations. Traditionally, physicians have been the primary consultants on healthcare issues. A more well-rounded approach, garnering the combined expertise of nurses, pharmacists, and nutritionists, will significantly broaden the ability of these agencies to define space healthcare issues and come up with their solutions.

Linda Plush is a post-master’s Family Nurse Practitioner in Lascaster, CA. In addition, she is President/CEO of Plush Systems Inc., a health education and consulting firm, and West Palm Inc., a mobile acute dialysis service. Plush is the past founding President of the Space Nursing Society formed in 1991, and currently serves as the group’s Executive Director.