THE voracious impulse to explore has been a hallmark of mankind ever since the dawn of the human species. There is certainly no exception to this pioneering spirit when it comes to putting men and women in space.
However, recent findings published in the journal Radiology suggest that the future of manned spaceflight could be in jeopardy.
The discovery of several new and potentially severe side effects of microgravity, including pathological changes to the eye, have put another question mark on the feasibility of long-term human space expeditions in an already uncertain climate.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of 27 astronauts who had been exposed to at least 100 days of microgravity detected several abnormalities, including compression in the rear eyeball and swelling of the optic nerve. Anatomical changes to the pituitary gland were also observed in some astronauts. Some of the subjects, however, exhibited no abnormalities.
The study by Larry Kramer of the University of Texas Medical School, Houston suggests that the observed irregularities may be attributed to a condition similar to “intracranial hypertension” – the increased pressure of brain tissue and cerebrospinal fluid within the skull.
Published on March 13, the study was set up in response to years of eyesight complaints by astronauts, particularly by those who had served on the International Space Station (ISS).
Dr Kramer told The Guardian that these findings could potentially impact manned missions to Mars, and in addition, endanger the space tourism industry.
“There are major political, social and individual ramifications relative to this thought alone,” Dr Kramer said.
“Can abnormalities detected be completely reversed? The next step is confirming the findings, defining causation and working towards a solution based on solid evidence.”
The state of the space program
The US Government’s commitment to manned space exploration has regularly come under fire, particularly with the Obama administration’s cancellation of the Constellation program in 2010. That program was to see man back on the Moon for the first time since 1972.
With a shift in focus from putting man on the Moon again to intrepid projects like Obama’s proposed “asteroid landings”, the public and Congressional scrutiny of NASA’s capabilities has lately become more frequent.
Dr Kramer’s latest findings only add to concerns.
After the Space Shuttle was decommissioned in early 2011, NASA has turned to the private sector with its CCDev initiative for launch solutions, pumping millions of dollars into research programs by corporations such as Boeing and SpaceX. It is hoped that these commercial flights will replace the Russian Soyuz spacecraft that currently deliver cargo to the ISS, although faith in the the Russian effort has also wavered of late.
Schedule slips are also creating anxieties, and cutbacks in Mars funding have seen two future unmanned NASA missions slashed, prompting fears of a “brain drain” in the industry and an end to the program altogether.
A long and uncertain road
Despite the setbacks that the US space program faces, the future of manned spaceflight, particularly with the announcement of the Space Launch System (SLS) last September, may not be on its final leg – just yet. The SLS is a heavy-lift launch vehicle capable of “expanding human presence beyond low-Earth orbit and enabling new missions of exploration across the solar system.” It is estimated that it will be able to transport payloads of up to 100 metric tonnes beyond orbit.
Sub-scale tests are currently being conducted at the Marshall Space Flight Centre with positive results.
But it is going to be a long and drawn-out process, with the next full-scale test of the SLS penned in for the northern hemisphere spring of 2013. In addition, the Obama administration’s dubious track record of scrapping projects (like Constellation), and a recent reminder of the solar system‘s invisible dangers leaves the once daring industry at a crossroads.