Launching into the ethical dimensions of health research in space

You feel your heart beating in your chest, the excitement building as you launch into the weightless expanse of space. As space is now more accessible to regular people without extensive physical training or assessment, more people have the opportunity to experience spaceflight. Studying the health and performance of private spaceflight participants could add to the diversity of the data set of space explorers and, through innovation, bring back benefits to people on Earth. However, the unique opportunity that an increased number of spaceflights as well as diversity of participants provides, reveals the need to consider the ethics and guidelines for the use of this opportunity to utilize commercial spaceflight in research.

A satellite floating in space with the earth behind it.The Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH), within Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Space Medicine, in collaboration with BCM’s Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy, hosted a workshop on this topic in 2023. The meeting drew participation from researchers, ethicists, government agencies and commercial spaceflight companies. Drawing from that conversation is a new publication in Science, putting forward an ethical framework and suggested guidelines for responsible health research in space.

For the time being, researchers are following existing scientific principles when proposing and carrying out projects. These principles include participants giving informed consent and a thorough review of the benefits the study poses to society, while minimal risks are posed to participants. Data from these studies must be securely collected and stored.

In addition to following these principles, the authors have determined guidelines specific to commercial spaceflight research and emphasize the following:

  • Social responsibility: Most spaceflight is funded through government and private sources, with commercial flight possible due to past public investment in research. These investments in spaceflight research should be treated as community resources. Social responsibility is an added factor commercial spaceflight participants must consider when facing the opportunity to allow for research.
  • Scientific excellence: Well-designed, replicable and important studies allow for the collection of quality data. Scientific excellence is maintained when rigorous studies are conducted.
  • Proportionality: Research during missions to space should minimize risk to participants and maximize benefits to society, with both being evaluated and balanced to one another.
  • Global stewardship: Resources used for spaceflight should be distributed responsibly, in a way that accounts for current population and future generations. Private entities and the public must receive the knowledge and other benefits fairly.

Even shorter commercial spaceflights can provide valuable data to scientists. In 2021, TRISH established the EXPAND (Enhancing eXploration Platforms and Analog Definition) program to study human health and performance in commercial spaceflight participants. The research platform is part data collection effort and part biological sample repository, housed at Baylor and is the first program of its kind, collecting a swath of scientific data and samples to facilitate health research, which benefits not only space explorers, but healthcare for all on Earth. Rigorous and ethical scientific research maximizes the potential for improvements to human health.

By Esha Raut, communications fellow for the Translational Research Institute for Space Health within the Center for Space Medicine

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