Space Tourism: What About Health Standards?

Want to play football? Sure, no problem. But before you turn junior loose on the field, your prospective future Hall of Famer must first pass a comprehensive physical in order to qualify.

Why, you may ask? Well, when it comes to safety, everyone has standards, even Pee-Wee football leagues. Small, young players are subjected to relative and proportional forces, just like when a rocket blasts off into space.

Astronauts endure a great deal of force and although there is no need to develop a 4.6-second, 40-yard dash, there are certain physical requirements astronauts must meet in order to be selected for a mission.

You dont have to be in super human shape, but you have to be in good physical condition, retired NASA astronaut Barbara Morgan told NewSpace Magazine when asked about the physical requirements of traveling into space.

Morgan participated in the Teacher in Space program in the mid-1980s and was chosen as the backup to Christa McAuliffe for the STS-51L mission of the Space Shuttle Challenger, which broke apart over the Atlantic 73 seconds after takeoff in 1986.

Traveling into space is no small matter, a fact that, besides certain physical requirements, also comes with psychological ramifications.
Morgan likened the emotional environment inside a space capsule to being a deep-sea diver or serving on a Naval vessel.

You are in a pretty hostile environment, she said. You are in the vacuum of space, in a small craft, and you want to make sure everyone does their job. You are tested for things like Closter phobia you dont want anyone trying to open the door.
In that kind of situation (being on a craft in space) it would be like being in a submarine with a handful of peopleĀ 

A Brief History
Prospective NASA astronauts undergo rigorous psychological testing before being accepted, but, historically, the physical requirements have also been fairly rigorous. The first humans to travel into space were selected on their resistance to extreme physical and mental strain. It was necessary, considering the first rockets were actually ballistic missiles designed for maximum acceleration. In addition, astronauts had to be able to pilot their spaceship back to Earth in case of emergencies, which meant they were selected from the best U.S. Air Force pilots, ones that possessed the manual skills, physical constitution, stress tolerance and health needed for the job.

The advent of the space shuttle changed the physical requirements for human space flight with the reduction of G-forces, but the psychological and educational requirements remained on a high level and even increased.

The physical and psychological requirements are changing again with the introduction of space tourism, space tourists only required to meet minimal physical requirements, for which no standard seems to have been set. Part of the justification most likely lies in the fact that there is no need for a standard since tourists wont pilot the vehicle and will not perform complex tasks on board.

So, what does this mean? It means almost anyone can go.

The Argument Against a Standard
In an article written for The Space Review, Dr. Petra Illig, MD sites an FAA document titled Human Space Flight Requirements for Crew and Space Flight Participants: Final Rule, published in the Federal Register on December 15, 2006. The document states that crewmembers with safety-critical roles (pilots) must hold a Class II FAA Medical Certificate.

There are currently no other medical requirements for commercial space pilots, and certainly none at all for the passengers, Illig said. The referenced FAA rule states only that the prospective space flight participants (SFPs) be informed of the risk profile of the prospective space flight, that they sign a waiver of claim against the U.S. government, that operators must train each SFP before flight how to respond to emergency situations (including smoke, fire, loss of cabin pressure and emergency exit), and to implement security requirements to prevent passengers from bringing explosives and weapons on board. Just as in the airline industry, the FAA does not have a legal mandate over the commercial space industry to regulate passenger healthonly safety.

As it stands, physical and psychological requirements for space tourists seem lenient. Its a fact Illig says is rooted in the health of the prime industry movers and shakers themselves.

(Proposed) standards would likely disqualify a significant portion of prospective SFPs, she said. Current demographics indicate a significant rise in the older proportion of the population, many of whom have the wealth to afford a ride into space but are likely to have a variety of medical problems associated with increasing age. An interesting insight into this group of people was provided at a Commercial Human Spaceflight workshop at the 2008 Aerospace Medicine Association Annual Scientific Meeting, where representatives from Virgin Galactic shared information regarding the medical conditions found among their founders. (The founders are the first 100 prospective SFPs that pre-paid the full fare of $ 200,000 for a suborbital flight with Virgin Galactic.)

Medical conditions among that group included hypertension, heart disease and spinal symptoms, all of which are problems that can be aggravated by space flight. According to Illig, 33% admitted to taking regular medications and 12% had a significant illness within the past 5 years. Seven percent currently smoked, 64% currently drank, and 20% admitted to being heavy drinkers.

All of these situations could be problematic for space flight and would therefore need further evaluation, but to disqualify them because they do not meet unrealistically high standards is not likely to be a viable option for the space tourism industry, Illig added. To create standards that would disqualify a significant segment of the customer base is too high of a threshold to be able to sustain the industry. Without sacrificing safety, it must be kept in mind that these are essentially passive passengers who in general do not need to have a mission-critical role and therefore should be medically evaluated according to well-thought out principles, rather than standards that seem to come out of professional astronaut training manuals.

Morgan, who took a teaching job at Boise State University in 2008, supports the idea of space tourism and doesnt seem to feel people should be excluded.

I think space tourism is great, said Morgan who, 12 years after serving in the Teacher in Space program, was selected as a mission specialist and trained at the Johnson Space Center, making her a full-time astronaut. She completed two years of training and evaluation, and worked at mission control as a prime communicator before being selected to the crew of STS-118 in 2003, where she worked as part of the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) project.

We are in the very beginning stages of it (Space tourism), She continued. Space is a remarkable environment and the human race has figured out how to get off the planet and live in that environment. There are many benefits to doing that. I feel, as many people who want to do that, should. Right now, it is much more accelerated than it has ever been up to this point. Id love to see it when its just not for the wealthy. There are challenges though. People should know its not like hopping in a plane and going to South America or any place like that. Every human being should have the opportunity at looking back at our amazing planet.

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NASA Physical Requirements for Astronauts
Ability to pass the NASA long-duration space flight physical, which includes the following specific requirements: Distant visual acuity – must be correctable to 20/20, each eye. The refractive surgical procedures of the eye, PRK and LASIK, are now allowed, providing at least one year has passed since the date of the procedure with no permanent adverse after effects.
Also, blood pressure cannot exceed 140/90 measured in a sitting position.
Standing height is between 62 and 75 inches.