Challenges in clinical management of radiation-induced illnesses during exploration spaceflight

Rebecca S. Blue, Mayo Clinic Scottsdale-Phoenix, Arizona
Jeffery C. Chancellor, Louisiana State University
Rahul Suresh, UT Medical Branch at Galveston
Lisa S. Carnell, NASA Langley Research Center
David P. Reyes, UT Medical Branch at Galveston
Craig D. Nowadly, University of California, Davis
Erik L. Antonsen, Baylor College of Medicine


INTRODUCTION: Analysis of historical solar particle events (SPEs) provides context for some understanding of acute radiation exposure risk to astronauts who will travel outside of low-Earth orbit. Predicted levels of radiation exposures to exploration crewmembers could produce some health impacts, including nausea, emesis, and fatigue, though more severe clinical manifestations are unlikely. Using current models of anticipated physiological sequelae, we evaluated the clinical challenges of managing radiation-related clinical concerns during exploration spaceflight. METHODS: A literature review was conducted to identify terrestrial management standards for radiation-induced illnesses, focusing on prodromal symptom treatment. Terrestrial management was compared to current spaceflight medical capabilities to identify gaps and highlight challenges involved in expanding capabilities for future exploration spaceflight. RESULTS: Current spaceflight medical resources, such as those found on the International Space Station, may be sufficient to manage some aspects of radiation-induced illness, although effective treatment of all potential manifestations would require substantial expansion of capabilities. Terrestrial adjunctive therapies or more experimental treatments are unavailable in current spaceflight medical capabilities but may have a role in future management of acute radiation exposure. DISCUSSION: Expanded medical capabilities for managing radiation-induced illnesses could be included onboard future exploration vehicles. However, this would require substantial research, time, and funding to reach flight readiness, and vehicle limitations may restrict such capabilities for exploration missions. The benefits of including expanded capabilities should be weighed against the likelihood of significant radiation exposure and extensive mission design constraints.