“NASA Likely to Break Radiation Rules to Go to Mars”

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The Story

“NASA Likely to Break Radiation Rules to Go to Mars”
by Sarah Scoles
NOVA Next, April 12, 2017

The Pitch

Hi Tim,

I hope things are going well (or at least okay) for you in 2017. It’s a crazy world out there.

I’ve got a pitch for you/NOVA Next, about NASA’s space radiation limits for astronauts and how they’ll have to break them to ever get to Mars. It’s below.

Looking forward to your thoughts (although no rush), and let me know if you have any questions.


Missions to Mars have many problems—having enough money, creating enough propulsion, keeping people healthy and not hating each other, not crashing into the surface, and bringing along enough astronaut ice cream for the two-year trip, for starters. Risks from radiation exposure are also on that list. And while the expected dosage for a three-year trip isn’t necessarily so high that astronauts would be at immediate risk, the exposure will be beyond NASA’s official acceptable bounds, according to a 2015 report from the Office of the Inspector General.

A National Academy of Sciences report, which prompted the inspector’s report, said that when a space mission can’t meet health standards, NASA has three options: “(1) expand current standards; (2) establish new, more permissive long duration and exploration health standards; or (3) grant an exception to the standard.” The Academy deemed only the latter option ethically acceptable, and NASA has said that’s its likely course. And another National Academies report, released this January, looked at the medical risks of space radiation and concluded (basically) “we don’t really know much, and what we do know isn’t good” (I can send more technical and medical details if it’s helpful).

Most people know radiation is bad and there’s lots of it in space, many but fewer people know NASA is working to reduce radiation exposure, but I think very few people know the agency won’t be able to meet its own standards and will step outside of them.

I’d like to investigate how such a bureaucratic agency will go about doing that, how they determine how far outside the standard is too far, and how astronauts feel about that, especially given that the agency does not provide them with lifetime health care on their return.

But also, here in this pitch, I have to acknowledge that we don’t know if we’ll still be on a #journeytomars after the new administration’s budget comes out. So here’s why this pitch is still relevant: The inability to acceptably absorb incoming cosmic rays will be equally true long-term lunar missions and, potentially, private space stations/hotels. And then there’s the relevance to private Mars missions. They’re not beholden to NASA’s standards at all. And as far as I’ve seen, Musk—the most realistic contender—has presented no technological solutions or even much concern for the problem. So can SpaceX just inform someone of the risks; say, “We did our best”; and send them up and away? NASA astronauts, once subject to OSHA’s radiation-worker requirements, are now exempt; OSHA let the agency establish its own limits. Will private spaceflight companies be allowed to do the same, and how will their limits stack up next to the ones NASA is planning to break?

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