According to a NASA study, the medical risks — both physical and psychological — of long journeys in space remain are far greater than the public has been led to believe.

After 40 years of space travel, information on stresses to the body due to space travel has not been properly analyzed. Not enough is known about the dangers of prolonged travel for humans to venture into deep space in a safe and sane manner. Part of the problem comes from ?underreporting? by astronauts about their health problems, due to the confidentiality of data between astronauts and flight surgeons.

A 300-page report entitled ?Safe Passage: Astronaut Care for Exploration Missions,? has been released by The National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine. Fourteen medical doctors, clinical psychologists and health care specialists compiled the report.

?Space travel is inherently hazardous. The risks to human health of long duration missions beyond Earth orbit, if not solved, represent the greatest challenge to human exploration of deep space,? the committee reports. Furthermore, the development of solutions ?is complicated by lack of a full understanding of the nature of the risks and their fundamental causes.?

Kenneth Shine, President of the Institute of Medicine, cautions that deep space exploration, such as a journey to Mars, brings up questions about the health of the mission crews. ?Some of the physiologic effects of shorter periods in space such as loss of bone calcium are likely to continue indefinitely during longer missions,? Shine says. Also, psychological and mental health problems can arise from putting people from diverse social and cultural backgrounds into tight quarters for long periods of time.?For prolonged missions, it will not be feasible to return an acutely ill individual to Earth in a timely manner,? Shine says.

The first problem to be solved involves behavioral and cultural understandings, including crew selection and training. Human interactions aboard a spacecraft, isolated in time and space from Earth, ?may well be one of the more serious challenges to exploratory missions by humans,? the study group says.

The other area of concern is the collection of clinical data on astronauts. A new approach is needed, because too much emphasis has been placed on confidentiality of astronaut medical data. Overly protective policies have resulted in ?lost opportunities? to learn about human physiological adaptation to space. The astronauts? code that encourages them to face discomfort without complaint ?further reinforces the individual?s reluctance to report medical information,? the report says.

The report states that, after four decades of human space travel, ?a paucity of useful clinical data have been collected and analyzed? and says, ?It is unlikely that all effects of microgravity are known, and surprises may yet be in store as humans venture longer and farther into space.?

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