In the course of this study it became clear that our understanding of the effects of spaceflight on the human body is still fragmentary despite more than three decades of flight experience. This knowledge gap is due partly to the relative brevity of most U.S. flights to date and the small number of dedicated life sciences missions, but the committee also found that there were numerous barriers—legal, institutional, and cultural—to the collection and analysis of biomedical data from astronauts. Collection and analyses of these data are critical to ensuring the future health and safety of astronauts, and the 1998 report recommended that NASA initiate an ISS-based program to collect detailed biomedical data and that NASA promote internal mechanisms for ensuring that this data is accessible to qualified investigators.
In addition to setting specific discipline priorities, the report presented a number of broad findings such as the following:
The highest research priority should be given to problems that may limit astronaut survival or function in prolonged spaceflight. Losses in bone and muscle mass, for instance, pose two of the greatest obstacles to astronaut health and safety on long missions. Gravitational transitions experienced by astronauts as they enter and return from space can have debilitating effects on their balance and locomotion control. And exposure to radiation could pose serious health effects for crew members in long-term missions beyond Earth orbit.
While space-based research will be crucial for advancing knowledge, those experiments should not be performed until ground-based research has demonstrated a clear need for flight data and a clear-cut hypothesis has been developed that can be credibly tested under flight conditions.
There is a critical need for NASA to improve its collection and dissemination of data from astronauts in order to answer fundamental questions about the effects of space travel on the human body and mind.
The 1998 report is now being followed up by a review of NASA's current biomedical research program in light of the recommendations of the 1998 strategy report. This follow-up study was requested by NASA and will be completed this summer.
An example of a more focused assessment is the recently released SSB/NRC report Future Biotechnology Research on the International Space Station, which reviewed NASA's plans for research in protein crystal growth and in cell science on the ISS. I'll talk in a little more detail about the findings of this report, as I understand it is of special interest to this subcommittee.
In general, this report concluded that NASA's protein crystal growth and cell science programs both have the potential to significantly impact relevant scientific fields and to increase understanding and insight into fundamental biological issues. The report includes recommendations in technical areas, such as the kinds of instruments to be used on the space station, and discusses changes that should be made in NASA's culture to improve its interaction with the scientific community. The findings and recommendations detailed in the report are aimed at helping NASA perform biotechnology research effectively on the International Space Station.
The specific findings and recommendations of the report include the following points:
The body of work to date on protein crystal growth in space has not provided conclusive evidence about how microgravity affects crystals, and the impact of space-grown crystals on the field of structural biology has been limited. However, some biologically important macromolecules are still very hard to crystallize, and NASA could have significant impact by focusing on these types of proteins.
NASA needs to fund a series of “proof-of-concept” grants to determine definitively the effects of micro-gravity on protein crystal growth. The success or failure of these research efforts will resolve the issue of whether the microgravity environment can be a valuable tool for researchers and the results should determine the future of the NASA protein crystal growth program.
In the cell science area, NASA's broad-based goal of exploring the fundamental effects of the microgravity environment on biological systems at the cellular level is appropriate, and the work in this area has the potential to have significant impact on the fields of cell science and tissue engineering. However, NASA needs to choose among the many possible areas of basic research in order to focus its grants programs and the instrumentation development activities.
Some of the hardware currently in advanced stages of development greatly impressed the task group; examples include the x-ray crystallography facility for observing and analyzing protein crystals and the miniaturized and automated systems for growing cell and tissue cultures. The technological innovations reflected in these