Human System Risk Management

Guest Blogger: Jeff Davis, Director, Space Life Sciences Directorate, Johnson Space Center (see bio below)

Shana’s Introduction

Last week at the NASA Strategic Management Council, Dr. Jeff Davis, Director, Space Life Sciences Directorate at Johnson Space Center, led a presentation on human system risk management. I was impressed with the scope and depth of what Jeff and his colleagues are accomplishing, so I asked him to do a “guest blog” this week on the topic. From a personal perspective, I was interested to hear about Vitamin D deficiencies and how, for those of us on Earth who use sunscreen all the time, we are inhibiting Vitamin D absorption from the recommended daily 15 minutes of sunlight exposure.

It is not just rhetoric when I say that NASA’s people are our most important asset. The risks inherent in sending humans to space are therefore of great concern. Jeff and his colleagues are doing great work to ensure that the health and well-being of the humans we send to space are protected as much as possible. Jeff eloquently explains the work NASA is doing in his posting below.

Jeff Davis’ Posting

As we prepare to send humans back to the Moon for longer periods of time, and on to Mars, we must fully understand the human health and performance challenges so as to manage “human system” risks, as we would any other spacecraft or launch system risk. My team, the Johnson Space Center Space Life Sciences Directorate, has developed a risk management framework to identify, analyze, plan, track and control human health and performance risks. The focus is on identifying and mitigating risks that negatively impact successful completion of our mission, or that endanger long-term astronaut health. The effort is Agency-wide, including Exploration Systems Mission Directorate Human Research Program scientists, as well as Space Operations Mission Directorate flight surgeons and operational personnel who work to keep our Space Transportation System (STS) and International Space Station (ISS) astronauts healthy. The HQ Chief Health and Medical Officer plays an important role, serving as the Agency Health and Medical Technical Authority, as well as setting policy and standards that guide our work.

Based on our space flight experience to date, as well as relevant terrestrial medical data, we can identify the human health and performance risks that could impact the mission or long term astronaut health. This evidence base is expanding as our crews spend more time onboard the ISS and as the Human Research Program finds critical answers. In order to guide the Shuttle, ISS and Constellation programs, the Chief Health and Medical Officer sets human health and performance standards that define acceptable levels of human health risk. These standards directly drive program requirements for mitigation strategies.  

Flight surgeons provide clinical care to the astronauts and implement current risk mitigation strategies. In addition, they support future crews by assisting and informing the research program. Flight surgeons address medical issues that occur in astronauts, treat them and return the astronauts to duty. Many medical issues have been successfully treated resulting in the astronaut resuming a productive space flight career. These experiences contribute to our evidence base and inform our analysis of human health risks.  

The Human Research Program is actively engaged in research (including important research onboard the ISS that will allow us to understand our highest priority human health and performance risks and set effective standards. I’d like to share some examples of the exciting and operationally relevant research:  

Dr. Jean Sibonga, the bone discipline research lead, is leading the study of recovery of space flight-induced bone loss in long duration crewmembers. Her research provides insight into why astronauts and cosmonauts lose bone mineral density during spaceflight, and what the Agency needs to address in order to ensure that bone loss doesn’t impact our future missions. Her data shows that the loss of bone is different for different people, and that the recovery of the lost bone mineral density can take up to three years. This information is used by flight surgeons and scientists to provide ways for astronauts to recover after flight including the gradual reintroduction of exercise.  

Dr. Scott Smith, the lead of the nutrition laboratory, is examining the nutritional status of our astronauts. His research shows that Vitamin D levels after long duration missions are often lower than desired and, together with the ISS flight surgeons, he is evaluating Vitamin D supplementation as part of a broad-based study of nutritional status of our ISS long duration crewmembers. Dr. Smith and his team are also evaluating the stability of food and medicines during long duration space flight, so that new approaches can be taken to provide adequate nutrition and effective medicines during exploration missions.

Adverse effects of inhaling lunar dust that may get into a space vehicle or habitat during a Moon mission is a concern of scientists and physicians. Dr. John James, the lead toxicologist for JSC, is leading a team of scientists in evaluating health risks associated with exposure to lunar dust. Their studies are being performed on simulants and Apollo lunar samples. This information will lead to standards that guide engineers in designing life support systems and operational procedures to control the dust in future vehicles and habitats on the moon.

The intention of the human system risk management process is to ensure that human health and performance issues do not impact NASA’s mission. I’m pleased to lead an excellent team of scientists, physicians and engineers around the Agency in focusing on these important challenges.

Jeffrey R. Davis, MD, MS Bio

Jeffrey R. Davis, MD, MS is a Professor of Clinical Preventive Medicine in the Department of Preventive Medicine and Community Health at UTMB. Under an Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) agreement with NASA, he serves as Director, Space Life Sciences, NASA Johnson Space Center. The Space Life Sciences Directorate provides the research and technology development required for exploration as well as all biomedical support to space flight operations of the Space Shuttle and International Space Station. The Directorate is also responsible for life sciences requirements under the new Constellation program. The technical disciplines in the directorate include space medicine; biomedical research into the physiological changes induced by human exposure to reduced gravity; development of countermeasures to protect human health during space flight; environmental monitoring including radiation; and habitability and human factors.

Dr. Davis received his B.S. degree in Biology from Stanford University and M.D. degree from the University of California at San Diego. He subsequently did residency training in internal medicine and aerospace medicine, and is certified by the American Board of Preventive Medicine. Past positions include Corporate Medical Director, American Airlines, and Chief, Medical Operations NASA. His national board participation has included service as the chair of the American Board of Preventive Medicine; chair of the Residency Review Committee for Preventive Medicine; president of the Aerospace Medical Association; and a member of the executive committee of the American Board of Medical Specialties. Dr. Davis is the co-editor of the text Fundamentals of Aerospace Medicine, May 2002.  He is the senior editor of the 4th edition due for publication in April 2008. Additional publications are available on request.