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People sit at long desks in an auditorium.
Attendees take in the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety conference.

OSU hosts global aerospace leaders in conference concerning civilian space travel

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Media Contact: Shannon Rigsby | Associate Director of Public Information | 405-744-9081 | shannon.rigsby@okstate.edu

Oklahoma State University welcomed global aerospace leaders this week at the Human Research Program for Civilians in Spaceflight and Space Habitation (HRP-C) conference. 

The event was hosted by OSU’s Oklahoma Aerospace Institute for Research and Education (OAIRE) and the LaunchPad Center at the Helmerich Research Center on the OSU-Tulsa campus. The workshop —  under the banner of the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety (IAASS) — included leaders from NASA, FAA, commercial space companies, astronauts, and researchers from around the globe. The workshop provided a forum to discuss the health, safety and performance of civilians living and working in space in an exhaustive two-day conference, which concluded Wednesday. 

Jim Bridenstine
Former NASA director Jim Bridenstine speaks to attendees.

Jim Bridenstine, former NASA director, said what the workshop produces will transform what’s possible in commercial space travel. 

“We are trying to build the data and information so that people have the knowledge when they go into space of what to expect and how to mitigate the potential negative effects,” Bridenstine said. “We are at the beginning. This is a whole new day. What we have shaped in this conference is going to have implications for humanity for years down the road.” 

Dr. Michael Marge, vice chair for the IAASS workshop planning committee and longtime scientific leader in health care advocacy at the National Institutes for Health, Health and Human Services, and NASA, said humanity is on the cusp of an exponential increase in space exploration as more private companies enter the commercial space race. That increase means more civilians will have access to frontiers that once belonged exclusively to astronauts in perfect health. Marge said more than 50% of the U.S. population has one or more chronic health conditions, from diabetes to kidney disease, and civilians will be bringing their health conditions and disease processes with them to space.  

“The proposal that prompted the workshop was developed over months during think-tank sessions with spaceflight experts, scientists, spaceflight providers, medical experts and space agency representatives,” Marge said. “The conference presented a comprehensive program of research that we think will address all known problems that humans face in space so that we can find countermeasures to reduce the risk and make it possible for them to go into space with good health, safety and comfort.” 

Bridenstine said the hazards of long-duration spaceflight — from bone and muscle loss to blood clots and sometimes permanent changes in eyesight — have become evident as astronauts have spent more continuous time in space. And yet, researchers are uncovering new possibilities for revolutionary HIV and cancer treatments as well as growing human tissue in microgravity conditions. 

Frank Lucas
Congressman Frank Lucas speaks to attendees.

“What we’re doing here is critically important for what we do as a nation and quite frankly as a globe as we move humanity off the Earth,” he said. “And it’s not just NASA astronauts — it’s not people in great physical shape. Everyone is flying into space. We have had 90 people fly in space who are not professional astronauts. For the commercial human space flight era we are entering, we have to take steps now to do it right.” 

The idea of civilians in space is relatively new, and the workshop is the first of its kind. Leaders, some from as far away as the Nigerian Space Agency, provided information on risks to the human body in spaceflight, possible measurements for targeted research, mitigating countermeasures and data repositories. 

Dr. Thomas Marshburn, who spent 337 days in space and served as commander of the International Space Station, now serves as the chief medical officer at Sierra Space. He outlined physical and mental changes that afflicted him in space and possibilities that need to be considered when opening space to civilians. 

Dr. Michael Schmidt, Sovaris Space CEO and chief scientific officer, said the question is how to optimize gathering data to provide the greatest benefit. While the HRP-C has no regulatory role, the data gathered could be useful for companies working to commercialize space.

“It’s not the job of the HRP-C to decide who flies in space,” Schmidt said. “The HRP-C is really about how do we do the best possible kinds of research, generating extensive amounts of data and doing so in an unburdenedsome way. …This is really the foundation of how we’re building a program that’s going to be able to serve entire industry if we all agree this is the way to go forward.”   

Congressman Frank Lucas, chairman of the House Science Committee, said his top priority as chair is to ensure American competitiveness and leadership in the fields of research and technology development, which includes space exploration and commercialization.  

Jamey Jacob
Dr. Jamey Jacob speaks to attendees.

“I can assure you that the science committee will strongly support our human exploration efforts as part of the Artemis program,” Lucas said. Artemis is NASA’s return to the moon program.“An important component of space exploration is continuing research on the International Space Station, which engages in human health research and lower Earth orbit. This research is vital. As we return our astronauts to the moon, and on to Mars, it will also benefit the commercial space sector as well.”

Dr. Jamey Jacob, executive director of OAIRE, said the workshop was a critical step in the effort to advance human space flight. 

“This is the first of many meetings in commercial spaceflight OAIRE will be hosting through the auspices of the LaunchPad Center,” Jacob said. “Oklahoma has a long history in space flight and we look forward to supporting future collaborations connecting industry and OSU’s innovation expertise as part of our journey to the stars.”

“LaunchPad’s mission is to push the limits of human travel, and space is a component of that,” said James Spencer Jr.,  LaunchPad Center director. “It was in keeping with our mission to convene such a dynamic cohort of world-class researchers to accelerate our collective understanding. This is the beginning of what’s possible to send civilians safely into space, and we were honored to host an international group of the world’s leaders.”

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