Status Report

OIG: NASA’s Efforts to Manage Health and Human Performance Risks for Space Exploration

By SpaceRef Editor
October 29, 2015
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OIG: NASA’s Efforts to Manage Health and Human Performance Risks for Space Exploration

Full Report


Space flight is an inherently risky endeavor and NASA has identified 30 human health and performance risks associated with space travel, including Behavioral Health and Performance, Inadequate Food and Nutrition, Space Radiation, and Vision Impairment and Intracranial Pressure. In addition, NASA’s current plan to send a crewed mission to the Martian surface by the 2030s will expose astronauts to new and increased hazards. Although the Agency has developed mitigation strategies to reduce the impact of most of the risks associated with travel in low Earth orbit, many of the risks associated with long duration space travel are not fully understood.

To better appreciate the risks to human health and performance associated with space travel, NASA and its partners are performing a variety of studies on Earth and the International Space Station. In addition, multiple NASA offices play a role in developing procedures, medications, devices, and other strategies (countermeasures) to mitigate these risks, including the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD), which provides leadership and management of NASA’s human space exploration programs; Human Health and Performance (HHP) Directorate, the Agency’s primary resource for human health and performance issues related to space travel; and Human Research Program (HRP), which is focused on investigating and mitigating the highest risks to astronaut health and performance. In 2014, HRP completed a detailed schedule known as the Path to Risk Reduction setting forth the rate by which the Program expects to complete development of countermeasures for various risks through 2028.

In this audit, we examined NASA’s efforts to manage the health and human performance risks posed by space exploration. To determine how NASA manages risk mitigation, we reviewed the status of HRP’s human health and performance risks based on the Program’s schedule and risk matrix. We also reviewed Federal and NASA policies, regulations, and plans, and interviewed representatives from the Office of the Chief Health and Medical Officer, HEOMD, HHP, and HRP; various subject matter experts; and a selection of astronauts.


Although NASA continues to improve its process for identifying and managing health and human performance risks associated with space flight, we believe that given the current state of knowledge, the Agency’s risk mitigation schedule is optimistic and NASA will not develop countermeasures for many deep space risks until the 2030s, at the earliest. One of the major factors limiting more timely development of countermeasures is uncertainty about the mass, volume, and weight requirements of deep space vehicles and habitats. Moreover, even as NASA gains additional knowledge about its vehicles and habitats and the effects of radiation and other space conditions on the human body, the Agency may be unable to develop countermeasures that will lower the risk to deep space travelers to a level commensurate with NASA standards for low Earth orbit missions. Accordingly, the astronauts chosen to make at least the initial forays into deep space may have to accept a higher level of risk than those who fly International Space Station missions. We also found that NASA cannot accurately report the true costs of developing countermeasures for the identified risks.

Furthermore, NASA’s management of crew health risks could benefit from increased efforts to integrate expertise from all related disciplines. While many life science specialists attempt to utilize the range of available expertise both inside and outside the Agency, NASA lacks a clear path for maximizing expertise and data at both the organizational and Agency level. For example, NASA has no formalized requirements for integrating human health and research among life sciences subject matter experts nor does it maintain a centralized point of coordination to identify key integration points for human health. Moreover, integrating the experiences of NASA’s engineering and safety efforts would benefit the outside life sciences community. The lack of a coordinated, integrated, and strategic approach may result in more time consuming and costly efforts to develop countermeasures to the numerous human health and performance risks associated with deep space missions.

Long duration missions will likely expose crews to health and human performance risks for which NASA has limited effective countermeasures. Accordingly, for these missions NASA will have to determine the level of risk that is acceptable and clearly communicate the Agency’s decisions to astronauts, Congress, and the public. Moreover, NASA needs to continue to examine whether its current health care model for astronauts is sufficient to meet both the long-term health needs of the astronaut community and the research needs of the Agency.


To ensure NASA management has the best possible information available to make decisions related to human health and performance risks to Agency missions, we recommended the Manager of HRP ensure (1) HRP costs for research and countermeasure development are accurate and (2) the Path to Risk Reduction accurately reflects the status of research and realistic timeframes for countermeasure development to better determine what risks will be mitigated for the first human mission to Mars. In addition, to ensure appropriate integration of Agency expertise across disciplines, we recommended the Associate Administrator for HEOMD (3) establish a primary point of coordination within HEOMD to interface with all NASA programs, projects, and functions; (4) ensure that integration of technical authorities is occurring and consider inclusion of engineering and safety experts on all HHP and HRP control boards; and (5) clarify the organizational technology development responsibilities for human system risk mitigation. Regarding astronaut health care, we recommended the NASA Administrator and the Chief Health and Medical Officer (6) determine whether the current model satisfies Agency needs and the needs of the astronaut community and, if not, pursue legislative authority to implement necessary changes.

In response to a draft of our report, management concurred or partially concurred with our recommendations and described corrective actions they plan to address them. We consider management’s comments responsive; therefore, the recommendations are resolved and will be closed upon completion and verification of the proposed corrective actions.

SpaceRef staff editor.