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NASA Faces the Big Questions: Life, Death and Sex in Space

Spacesoon_2 NASA is planning ahead for a manned mission to within the next few decades. Although technologies may develop that dramatically shorten the trip, chances are that it will be a long flight there and back—around 3 years by current estimates. What do you do if someone dies or is critically injured along the way? Do you keep them alive? What do you do with the body?

"There may come a time in which a significant risk of death has to be weighed against mission success," says Paul Root Wolpe, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania Wolpe and NASA advisor. "The idea that we will always choose a person's wellbeing over mission success, it sounds good, but it doesn't really turn out to be necessarily the way decisions always will be made."

But with a mission in the foreseeable future and with the recent discovery of an "Earth-like" planet outside the solar system, NASA knows it’s time to figure out the tricky ethics that come with deep space exploration.

Some of these questions such as, who gets thrown from the lifeboat/spacecraft? Have been outlined in a NASA document on crew health obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Doctors, scientists, and bioethicists hope to figure out reasonable protocols over the next few years.

"As you can imagine, it's a thing that people aren't really comfortable talking about," NASA's chief health and medical officer Dr Richard Williams said. "We're trying to develop the ethical framework to equip commanders and mission managers to make some of those difficult decisions should they arrive in the future."

Sex, however, is not even mentioned in the document and has long been a taboo topic at NASA. Wolpe says that has got to change. The question will have to be addressed. Healthy young men and women stuck on the same craft for years at a time…lets just say sex might be an issue. In fact, romance gone bad has already made headlines as NASA.

NASA Astronaut Lisa Nowak was arrested and charged earlier this year with the attempted murder of NASA engineer Colleen Shipman. The two women were reportedly interested in another astronaut, Bill Oefelein. What if this bizarre scenario had taken place on a cramped space craft with no way of taking the attempted murderer into custody?

"There is a decision that is going to have to be made about mixed-sex crews, and there is going to be a lot of debate about it,” says Wolpe.

Aside from sex, there is the question of reproductive and general health. Astronauts traveling for long distances will have to face the standard health risks of space travel: radiation, the loss of muscle and bone, and psychological issues. NASA will be considering whether astronauts must undergo preventive surgery, such as an appendectomy, and whether astronauts should be required to sign living wills with end-of-life instructions among other questions.

NASA must also decide whether to set age restrictions on the crew, and whether astronauts of reproductive age should be required to bank sperm or eggs since there is a clear risk of genetic mutations from radiation exposure during long voyages.

Already, NASA is considering genetic screening in choosing crews for longer-duration missions. But currently that is prohibited.

"Genetic screening must be approached with caution ... because of limiting employment and career opportunities based on use of genetic information," Williams said.

Critics say that the space agency is not well prepared for the possibility of death during a mission.

"I don't think they've been great at dealing with this type of thing in the past," said former astronaut Story Musgrave, a six-time space-shuttle flier who has a medical degree. "But it's very nice that they're considering it now."

Posted by Rebecca Sato

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