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Translational Research Helps NASA Get to Mars

8/31/16 8:57 AM

NASA has formed a unique partnership with Baylor College of Medicine in Houston to develop solutions that will support NASA's Journey to Mars mission. The partnership, formally called the Translational Research Institute Cooperation Agreement, seeks to design strategies and technology that will protect the health and wellbeing of astronauts during protracted space travel.

Human beings evolved to live on Earth, so – unsurprisingly – space travel can be hard on astronauts' bodies. For example, long-term existence in a low gravity environment causes vision loss in about 30 percent of astronauts who go on two-week missions and 60 percent of those who spend multiple months in space.

Cognitive health is also an issue, as months floating in a tube in space is highly stressful, and some researchers even worry that the radiation exposure involved in a trip to Mars could speed up changes in the brain that are associated with the onset of Alzheimer's disease.

These issues, layered on top of the muscular atrophy and sleeplessness that have been associated with space travel since its inception, pose potentially serious risks to the health of astronauts. The goal of Baylor's work with NASA is to use biomedical, environmental, and cognitive and behavioral sciences to develop solutions that will mitigate these potential health concerns and keep astronauts safe and healthy throughout their missions.

NASA and Baylor are embracing a translational research model, meaning proposed technology and strategies will be put into practice as quickly as they are developed to best assess their efficacy. The approach emphasizes solutions-oriented thinking and prevents wasted time, as ideas that don't work out can be dropped or retooled quickly. This prevents the problem of developing a solution for years only to find out it doesn't work.

The agreement isn't just beneficial to NASA, however; it also gives students and scientists from Baylor access to state-of-the-art NASA laboratories and facilities. Researchers from the California Institute of Technology and MIT are also being subcontracted to work on the project, meaning that some of the best and brightest young scientific minds from around the country will be supporting the American space program while also getting valuable experience working with some of NASA's senior problem-solvers.

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