An Odd List of Body Parts
October 26, 2005: Picture this: An astronaut, on the Moon, hunched down over a rock, hammer in hand, prospecting. Suddenly, over his shoulder, there's a flash of light on the sun.
Explorer 1: "What's up?"
Mission Control: "There's been a solar flare, a big one. You need to take cover. The radiation storm could begin in as little as 10 minutes."
Explorer 1: "Roger. I'm heading for the Moon Buggy now. Any suggestions?"
Mission control: "Yes. Make sure you protect your hips."
Protect your hips?
That's right. Protecting the hips may be a key to surviving solar storms. Other sensitive areas are the shoulders, spine, thighs, sternum and skull.
Why this odd list of body parts? The bones in these areas contain marrow -- the "blood factory" of the body. Delicate bone marrow cells are especially vulnerable to solar storms; a major dose of solar protons coursing through the body could wipe them out. And without these blood-forming marrow cells churning out a steady stream of new blood cells, a person would run out of blood in as little as a week. A bone marrow transplant would be required--stat!--but they don't do those on the Moon.
So to survive a solar radiation storm, your first priority must be to protect your bone marrow.
With NASA sending people back to the Moon by 2018, the issue of surviving solar radiation storms is more important than ever. Outside the protection of Earth's magnetic field and with virtually no atmosphere overhead, an astronaut walking on the lunar surface is exposed to the full brunt of solar storms.
The best solution is to take cover, to get back to a radiation shelter. But if shelter is too far away to reach in time, wearing a spacesuit with extra radiation shielding over these key marrow-rich areas -- shoulders, hips, spine, etc. -- could mean the difference between living and dying.
"Bulking up the entire spacesuit with extra shielding might not be practical," says Frank Cucinotta, NASA's Chief Scientist at the Johnson Space Center, "because then the spacesuit would be too cumbersome." Astronauts have to be able to walk, hop, bend over, reach for objects and tools. Too much shielding would make these simple moves impossible--hence the idea of selective shielding:
A layer of a plastic-like material called polyethylene only 1 cm thick could prevent acute radiation sickness. "For all but the worst flares, this would be enough to keep the astronaut's blood system intact," Cucinotta says. If as few as 5% of those marrow cells survive, the bone marrow will be able to regenerate itself, and the person will survive, no transplant required.
An astronaut, so shielded, might still develop long-term health problems: cancer, cataracts and other maladies. "No spacesuit can stop all solar protons," explains Cucinotta. But if the blood supply survives, the astronaut will too, long enough to worry about the long term.
Right: A blood sample from an ISS astronaut that has been damaged by space radiation. The strands are chromosomes "painted" with fluorescent dye. "The picture shows big pieces of different colors stuck together," notes Cucinotta. "These are places where broken DNA has been repaired incorrectly by the cell."
At the moment, this idea of designing a spacesuit to selectively shield the astronaut's bone marrow is just that: an idea. Cucinotta says that many strategies are being considered for protecting the astronauts on the Moon. But the response to the idea of selective shielding has been positive, Cucinotta says. It might work.
If the idea catches on, post-Apollo spacesuits would look a little different, with beefy shoulders, wide hips, and bulbous helmets, among other things. Fashions change, sometimes for the better.
A New Kind of Solar Storm -- (Science@NASA) Going to the Moon? Be careful. A new kind of solar storm can take you by surprise.
Who's Afraid of a Solar Flare? -- (Science@NASA) Strange, but true: solar flares can be good for astronauts.
Have Blood, Will Travel -- (Science@NASA) The radiation astronauts encounter in deep space could put vital blood-making cells in jeopardy.
Sickening Solar Flares -- (Science@NASA) NASA researchers discuss what a big proton storm might do to someone on the Moon.