Artemis I will launch studies on the health of female astronauts

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

The pair are actually mannequin torsos, called phantoms, inspired by hospital training tools and designed to mimic the human bones, soft tissues and internal organs of an adult woman. They were born out of a collaboration with the Israel Space Agency and the German Aerospace Center, and are designed with sensors capable of mapping radiation exposure levels throughout the body. Zohar, in particular, will wear a radiation protection vest designed to protect real astronauts slated for future Artemis missions, including the first women to go to the moon.

The last time people set foot on the moon or even traveled beyond low Earth orbit was at the end of the Apollo program in 1972. At the time, the American astronaut corps didn’t did not admit women. That changed when America’s first female astronaut candidates were selected in 1978, with a young Sally Ride among them.

Today, NASA astronauts are much more diverse. But that’s not reflected in the data informing their safety protocols due to decades of male dominance on the pitch. Thus, the agency and its collaborators are launching new experiments to understand how different human bodies react to the extreme environment of space and best allow everything astronauts to do their jobs safely.

[Related: A brief history of menstruating in space]

“We stand on the shoulders of giants and have come a long way. But there is still a long way to go to understand [the biological nuances between astronauts]says Jennifer Fogarty, scientific director of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health, which is supported by NASA’s Human Research Program and led by Baylor College of Medicine. The goal, she says, is to build spaceflight tools and healthcare regimens for astronauts “around the human body to give it the ability to do the job you’re supposed to do and reduce the possibility of coming into conflict with this body”.

Zohar with his vest in the front, while Helga sits in the back. DLR

Wear in zero-g

To look for patterns, researchers like Fogarty collected data on how gender differences might influence the health of astronauts in space. So far, however, research into how female bodies respond to the extreme environment of space has been “pretty limited,” she says. To date, more than 600 people have flown into space; less than 100 of them were women. Tools like Helga and Zohar can help collect data in a way that doesn’t depend on historical trends.

Scientifically, it is difficult to extrapolate trends in sex differences or sex-specific health care that can be trusted based on these numbers, as some characteristics could simply come from individual variation. For example, when an astronaut developed a blood clot while on the International Space Station in 2020, it sparked an investigation into whether using hormonal contraceptives for menstrual cycle control increased the risk of clotting during spaceflight. A review of 38 female astronaut flights published later that year concluded that this was not the case. But given the small sample size and the rarity of blood clots associated with hormonal contraceptives, this question remains open.

In some ways, women have proven to be particularly “resilient” during spaceflight, Fogarty says. For example, the eyesight of male astronauts appears to be more affected by swelling around the optic nerve in weightlessness than that of female astronauts. But according to a 2014 study, female astronauts statistically experienced greater orthostatic intolerance (the inability to stand without fainting for a long time) upon returning to Earth.

Gray and pink internal parts of space dummies for the Artemis I mission
Radiation-sensitive layers of mannequins that will mimic the female body during the Artemis I mission. DLR

Cosmic radiation poisoning

Beyond short-term conditions and bodily changes, much of the attention to human health in space focuses on exposure to cosmic radiation from stars and galactic explosions. Most of the data we have now comes from lab research on rodents or observations of atomic bomb survivors, Fogarty said: “It shows that female survivors are more likely to develop lung cancer than males.” .

Because women seem to have more side effects of radiation damage than men, NASA recently updated its standards to make acceptable exposure levels uniform, limiting all astronauts to what was previously the authorized dose for a 35-year-old woman.

Galactic cosmic rays, however, are different from radiation from nuclear weapons. On the one hand, in nuclear accidents or acts of war, the exposure is two-dimensional, which means that certain organs can be affected by more radiation than others. But, in space, radiation is “considered ubiquitous,” Fogarty says — you’re exposed in all directions. Some calculations suggest that the radiation exposure rate on the Moon is about 2.6 times that of astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Even then, in a week on the ISS, astronauts can be exposed to the same amount of radiation as humans for a year on the ground.

With radiation coming from all angles in space, designing a physical barrier like a space suit or protective vest can be tricky. It is therefore important to understand how all human organs are affected by radiation exposure, whether or not they are sex-specific reproductive organs.

Mannequins in the shape of a woman and a dummy in the shape of a man on the Artemis I spacecraft in orbit in the model
Mannequins en route to the moon during the Artemis I mission. NASA/Lockheed Martin/DLR

This is where Helga and Zohar come in. The female “ghosts” are part of the Matroshka AstroRad (MARE) radiation experiment. Internally, they have a grid of 10,000 passive sensors and 34 active radiation detectors that will collect data for researchers on which parts of the body come into most contact with electromagnetic waves during spaceflight. Some organs may be protected by the soft tissue layers covering them, while others may not. This will help engineers build more targeted systems to protect areas of the body most at risk from harmful radiation.

“What we will get in addition to the difference between a man and a woman in terms of biological effects, we will get the difference between the different organs of the body. The difference between the brain and the uterus, for example”, has said Ramona Gaza, MARE science team leader at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, during a press conference call this week.

The two torsos will not be the only Artemis I experiment designed to study the effects of radiation. There will also be a suite of living organisms, including yeasts, fungi, algae, and plant seeds, aboard the mission. In a NASA project called BioSentinel, the Orion capsule will launch a CubeSat into orbit around the moon carrying yeast cells to test how organisms survive in the deep space environment.

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

In total, the Artemis I mission will launch 10 CubeSats: the rest will study aspects of the lunar environment that will be important to characterize for the safety of future human journeys to the Moon. They include tools for studying space weather and bursts of solar radiation, mapping water ice reserves on the lunar surface, and a tiny lander from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

Helga and Zohar won’t be the only “passengers” on Artemis I either. In addition to a stuffed sheep, they’ll be joined by a male-bodied mannequin fitted with sensors to measure various aspects of the environment around the moon. during the flight, including radiation exposure. While Helga and Zohar won’t be wearing spacesuits, Commander Moonikin Campos will be dressed in a first-generation Orion Crew life support system, which the Artemis astronauts will use when real humans return to the moon.

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