Man on the moon, once and again

Knowledge of the health challenges present in space exploration has advanced since the early days of space travel. Baylor College of Medicine and the Health Museum in Houston presented “Health: Moon and Beyond” to discuss the challenges and opportunity behind manned space exploration.

On Saturday, July 20, “Health: Moon and Beyond” recognized of 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission and humanity’s first steps on the moon. The event featured a screening of Smithsonian Channel documentary “The Day We Walked on the Moon,” and an expert panel discussing the significance of the Apollo 11 mission, NASA’s plans to return to the moon and the health challenges we must address as we go further to Mars.

Marking the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, former NASA astronaut and Baylor College of Medicine physician Dr. David Hilmers shared his experiences in both space and medicine.

“At the time I was an astronaut, I was not yet a physician – so I was somewhat blissful in my ignorance,” Hilmers said. “Particularly on my first mission, all I wanted to do was to get in space and say that I had been there. That completely overrides all the safety and health issues.”

As NASA’s partner for innovation in deep space health research, the Translational Research Institute for Space Health at Baylor College of Medicine (TRISH) is working to address these human health and safety issues. TRISH supports new approaches to reducing risks to astronaut health and performance, which can lead to advances in healthcare in space and on Earth. The Institute is a consortium with Caltech and MIT and led by Baylor College of Medicine.

In addition to hearing Dr. Hilmer’s first-hand account of space, the audience heard from Dr. Dorit Donoviel, director of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health; Dr. Jeffrey Sutton, director of Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Space Medicine; and Dr. Lance Black, associate director of the Texas Medical Center’s accelerator program. Journalist Eric Berger of Ars Technica moderated the discussion.

The Apollo program succeeded in landing the first humans on the Moon in 1969, and is to date is the only mission that sent crewed missions beyond low Earth orbit. The program made early steps in proving potential of manned space exploration, something we take for granted today.

“We actually didn’t know if humans could breath and live and function normally in space,” said Donoviel. “It speaks to the human body being so incredibly resilient.”

Today, a growing community of researchers looking into the health conditions that present in space. Astronauts endure internal fluid shifts due to the zero-gravity environment, increased demineralization of bones, and sometimes, vision changes caused by Space-Associated Neuro-Ocular Syndrome (SANS).

Part of the challenge is performing healthcare in an extreme environment. “In space medicine, you are inherently limited in diagnostic capabilities,” said Sutton.

For one, the space medicine kit is limited in terms of what we can bring along. Astronauts won’t have access to MRI machines and other tools that would be present in a terrestrial healthcare setting. They will need medications that can remain stable and effective for a long period of time, and that can withstand space radiation. Addressing these challenges for astronauts will advance healthcare at home.

“The research that’s being done in space medicine has a lot of applications here on Earth,” Sutton said. Baylor’s Center for Space Medicine that Sutton leads has been focused on addressing these important issues for more than a decade, providing a permanent academic home to advance science, technology, medicine and education to benefit human health in space and on Earth.

Going forward to Mars will also include advances coming from the commercial sector. According to Lance Black, the free-thinking entrepreneur community brings a new mindset and approach to the high-risk problems of deep space exploration.

“Working with groups that have a space application, you not only treading new ground, but you’re leveraging collective wisdom,” said Black. “That technology is further advanced, not just for space applications, but for here on Earth.”

-By Rachael Dempsey