ORLANDO, Fla., December 24 (UPI) – NASA is testing a space radiation protection vest on the International Space Station that could protect astronauts from deadly solar flares on missions to the Moon and Mars.
Solar storms with high doses of radiation are among the biggest threats to astronauts in deep space missions. The worst of such storms could make space pilots too sick to function and eventually kill them.
The new vest is designed with flexible polyethylene shapes to suit men or women and protect their most vulnerable organs.
“We’re trying to see if astronauts can wear it for as long as possible without experiencing pain or discomfort,” said Oren Milstein, co-founder and CEO of vest manufacturer StemRad, based in Tampa and Tel Aviv, Israel.
“Several astronauts will wear a vest, with a maximum period of eight hours while they sleep,” Milstein said.
The Northrop Grumman Cygnus cargo capsule delivered the StemRad space vest, called AstroRad, to the space station in November 2019. Since then, astronauts have tested the vest, although NASA does not usually confirm who is involved in medical experiments.
StemRad helped develop the AstroRad vest based on its 360 gamma shield vest that protects first responders and has to cover radioactive scenes.
Milstein helped found the company in 2011, in part in response to stories of firefighters’ deaths after Russia’s 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
StemRad is developing a vest for Lockheed Martin, which is the supplier responsible for the Orion crew capsule in NASA’s planned missions to Artemis.
Orion includes a space chamber or radiation protection cabinet that can be switched over by astronauts in crisis, but that could only be sustainable for a short period, Milstein said. Radiation storms in space can last for days or weeks.
The vest provides targeted protection to the pelvis – where large amounts of bone marrow can absorb radiation – and other organs such as the lungs, breasts and ovaries, Milstein said.
“Trying to protect the whole body means adding a lot of weight,” he said. “You can reasonably protect a part of the body or a part of the body that happens to be the more sensitive part.”
The space vest is being produced at a cost of about $ 1 million, Milstein said, but the Israeli space agency is providing it as part of its contribution to the international effort on the lunar mission Artemis.
The vest on the space station is now a smaller version intended for women, but Milstein said it will be worn by a male astronaut someday.
NASA released a brief note in mid-December about testing that astronauts continue to test the vest.
“AstroRad effectively protects astronauts from ionizing radiation transmitted to space, provides operational simplification, and enables the use of recycled material in the vehicle,” NASA’s update states.
StemRad, meanwhile, has distributed limited new air suits to doctors and radiologists on Earth, who are facing increased radiation exposure due to medical scanning and radiation treatment equipment.
The medical suit, called StemRad MD, provides ease of use and better protection due to heavy lead clothing suspended from the exoskeleton frame that fits on the outside of the wearer, said Jean Bismuth, 53, a vascular surgery specialist at Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas. He has had the suit since October.
“I was stunned when I first got it. I was running down the hallways. I can sit and steer or stand,” Bismuth said. “You have to have a little awareness of space because the frames are on the outside of the legs, but this is an improvement for ergonomics and safety.”
20 years on the International Space Station
The International Space Station was photographed by members of the Expedition 56 crew from the Soyuz spacecraft after unhooking on October 4, 2018. NASA astronauts Andrew Feustel and Ricky Arnold and Roscosmos cosmonaut Oleg Artemyev flew around the orbiting laboratory to photograph the station space before returning home after spent 197 days in space. Photo courtesy of NASA / Roscosmos