Space: The Final Frontier—Research Relevant to Mars
A critically important gap in knowledge surrounds the health consequences of exposure to radiation received gradually over time. Much is known about the health effects of brief high-dose exposures, such as from the atomic bombings in Japan, but the concerns today focus on the frequent low-dose exposures received by members of the public, workers, and, as addressed in this paper, astronauts. Additional guidance is needed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for planning long-term missions where the rate of radiation exposure is gradual over years and the cumulative amounts high. The direct study of low doses and low-dose rates is of immeasurable value in understanding the possible range of health effects from gradual exposures and in providing guidance for radiation protection, not only of workers and the public but also astronauts. The ongoing Million Person Study (MPS) is 10 times larger than the study of the Japanese atomic bomb survivors of 86,000 survivors with estimated doses. The number of workers with >100 mSv career dose is substantially greater. The large study size, broad range of doses, and long follow-up indicate substantial statistical ability to quantify the risk of exposures that are received gradually over time. The study consists of 360,000 U.S. Department of Energy workers from the Manhattan Project; 150,000 nuclear utility workers from the inception of the nuclear age; 115,000 atomic veterans who participated in above-ground atmospheric tests at the Nevada Test Site and the Bikini and Enewetak Atolls and Johnston Island in the Pacific Proving Grounds (PPG); 250,000 radiologists and medical workers; and 130,000 industrial radiographers. NASA uses an individual risk-based system for radiation protection in contrast to the system of dose limits for occupational exposures used by terrestrial-based organizations. The permissible career exposure limit set by NASA for each astronaut is a 3% risk of exposure-induced death (REID) from cancer at a 95% confidence level to account for uncertainties in risk projections. The large size of the MPS will reduce the uncertainty in the risk estimates, narrowing the 95% confidence interval, and thus allow more time in space for astronauts. Further differences between men and women in their response to radiation can be more fully examined, and non-cancer outcomes, such as neurological disorders and cardiovascular disease, can be evaluated in a way not hitherto possible.