Health Complexities Involved in Space Exploration

An interview with Dr John B. Charles, former Chief Scientist of the Human Research Program, NASA.

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Dr John B Charles in his position as Scientist in Residence, NASA. (Credits: NASA. All photographs were supplied by Dr John B Charles)

Michael Seres, human health and medical innovation ambassador of ideaXme recently spoke with Dr. John B. Charles, former Chief Scientist of the Human Research Program, NASA. Dr.Charles’ career with the organization spanned 35 years and focused on maximizing human health and physical performance in space.

Dr. Charles talks of that career and ongoing association with NASA. Moreover, he provides an insight into the space science which is helping to pave mankind’s way to the stars and his continued involvement in a personal space project which was until recently classified.

Challenges faced by astronauts during spaceflight

One of the major side effects of spaceflight is the loss of bone marrow. Due to weightlessness, the bones no longer have to back the body up against gravity, and hence can become weak overtime. NASA is especially concerned about this issue and ensures the safe travel of explorers back to earth.

We learnt that zero gravity weight lifting seems to help protect astronauts’ bones

This is what Dr. Charles says about his research in this area:

‘Right now, the knowledge flow is from the clinic on the ground to the astronauts. As an example we use Fosamax on astronauts to protect them from the loss of calcium, bone mass. This drug was developed for post menopausal women. But we’ve also shared what we’ve learnt about bone mass. Loss of bone mass turns out to be an area where we do provide some benefit to the ground. We learnt that by adding a significant amount of resistive exercise to exercise programs not just treadmill, not just bicycle exercise but actual zero gravity weightlifting to astronauts workouts helps reduce bone loss. We learnt that zero gravity weight lifting seems to help protect astronauts’ bones.’

High CO2 levels on the Space Station

The life in space is different from the life on earth. A lot of factors have to be kept in mind to ensure optimal performance of astronauts in space. One of them is the excess CO2 levels in the confined cabins of spacecraft which is toxic. To ensure a healthy clean breathing environment, CO2 is continuously vented out from the small cabin into the space.

‘We’re especially looking at the carbon dioxide levels. It turns out that it is a lot harder to scrub out carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. You burn out carbon dioxide scrubbers; they have to replace them and have to fly new ones. We tolerate a higher level of CO2 on the Space Station than you, and I experience here on the ground.’

According to Dr. Charles:

‘The high levels of CO2 on the Space Station are right up the bleeding edge between unobtrusive and what starts to cause headaches and if it increases a bit more may start causing cognitive errors. So, there is a constant dynamic between the engineers who don’t want to have to find money in their budget for a new CO2 scrubber because “This one is maintaining CO2 levels that the Navy says is perfectly acceptable in nuclear submarines when they are 6 months under the ice” and the astronauts who insist that they are so delicately tuned to it that they can tell when CO2 increases even a little bit and they start getting headaches and start feeling “space stupid” as they call it.’

Human Research Program

NASA’s Human Research Program is responsible for maintaining the health of astronauts in space. They develop new technologies and equipments backed by proper research for countering the many dangers of spaceflight like space radiation, bone loss problem, isolation, psychological effects etc.

Talking about the highlights of his career, Dr. Charles said:

‘I was the guy who had the opportunity to put together the research for a one-year mission of Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko on the International Space Station which seems to be the most recent major accomplishment on my resume. Now I am having a lot of fun being the Scientist in Residence at the Space Center Houston Visitors Center. I now have the opportunity to do all the fun stuff and none of the tedious bureaucratic stuff.

The Human Research Program was initially called Bio-astronautics, and it was a NASA headquarters in Washington D.C. It was the organization that primarily doled out the funding to all the ten field centers that do space life sciences research. Primarily to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida and the Ames Research Center in California. Those were the three prime locations for space life sciences research.’

A brave and brilliant manager

Leading a team of young scientists comes with a lot of responsibility. Even with the role as a manager, Dr John B. Charles made sure his leadership had a positive influence on his people and invested his knowledge, time and support for them.

Here’s what Dr. Charles has to say about his experience:

‘The nice thing about being the manager, the Chief Scientist is that they are all your projects. I can see bits of my inspiration in all of them and the other thing about being a manager is that you don’t get to take credit for that. You put the ideas out there, and the good ones take root and become somebody else’s brilliant idea. You may know that was my idea, but you can never say anything about that publicly because the other guy has the publications and the research that ‘prove’ that it was his idea. But it’s like scattering seeds and seeing which ones grow.’

To learn more about Dr. Charles’ management approach, his spearheading of human space science as well as the personal space project mentioned previously click the interview links below.

Healthcare for Mars, secret research and teetering on the edge of infinity!

With permission of ideaXme, a global podcast, ambassador and mentor programme. ideaXme interviews the creators and innovators who shape our world.  They speak to all those who Move the human story forward! ideaXme Ltd.

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Credits:  Interview by Michael Seres the ideaXme ambassador for human health, medical innovation and technology

The original interview has been condensed and concluded by Iqra Naveed.

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