Florida State University Professor Michael Delp has identified a link between deep space radiation exposure, and a high rate of mortality due to cardiovascular problems in astronauts who flew beyond low-Earth orbit (LEO) during the Apollo program. Research based on the discovery could be used to safeguard future astronauts undertaking the next phase of manned space exploration.
Delp’s study went one step further by observing the cause of death for Apollo astronauts in order to determine the risk to future human explorers. Between 1968 and 1972 nine manned Apollo missions flew beyond LEO into deep space. Of the 24 astronauts that crewed the spacecraft, 8 have passed away.
Upon reviewing their causes of death, the professor noted that 43 percent of the Apollo astronauts had fallen victim to cardiovascular issues, a rate five times higher than ground crew and astronauts who never passed beyond Earth’s protective magnetosphere. According to Delp, it is possible that the cardiovascular defects result from an exposure to cosmic radiation.
o explore his theory further, Delp subjected laboratory mice to radiation doses similar to those which would be absorbed by astronauts operating in deep space. It was discovered that six months after exposure, which would be the equivalent of 20 human years for the mice, the subjects began to exhibit signs of artery impairment. Such degradation in a human patient could in time lead to the onset of atherosclerotic vascular disease.
Having provided evidence for a link between exposure to cosmic radiation and deterioration to vascular health, Delp is now working with NASA to develop methods by which we may be able to counteract the effect of deep space radiation. Antioxidants are being examined as one line of potential treatment, the administering of which could theoretically protect a space explorer’s blood vessels from damage due to oxidant stress.