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Humans have dreamed of traveling to the stars for centuries, and since the advent of space travel in the 1960s, more than 600 people have blasted off beyond the planet. But as they leave Earth, astronauts also leave the gravity, atmospheric pressure and other conditions our bodies need to function, posing unique challenges. As NASA shoots for the moon with the Artemis program and prepares to send the first people to Mars in the 2030s, Texas A&M University researchers are studying how to keep these interstellar travelers healthy as they boldly go where no one has gone before.

By bringing the comforts of home.

Dr. Ana Diaz Artiles
Assistant Professor, Aerospace Engineering


For many, the chance to soar among the stars sounds like a dream come true. But spending months in a lunar module or cramped spacecraft traveling millions of miles from home on the way to Mars can quickly lose its luster. “A major factor in space is sensory deprivation,” explained Dr. Ana Diaz Artiles, director of Texas A&M’s Bioastronautics and Human Performance Lab. “The spacecraft environment is not visually stimulating, there’s always similar sounds, and there’s not much to feel.”

In the future, astronauts could escape these isolating effects by putting on a virtual reality (VR) headset to stroll through nature or surround themselves with the familiar sounds and smells of their favorite coffee shop. That’s the goal for Diaz Artiles, whose lab is examining the role scent could play in reducing astronauts’ stress. In a recent study, her team found that exploring a VR environment that included immersive smells reduced participants’ anxiety levels, and they plan to expand these studies to more chronically stressed individuals in the future.

Combined with her lab’s focus on the physical effects of space exploration, this research on astronauts’ behavioral health reflects Diaz Artiles’ desire to help astronauts function at their best holistically as they travel further into the unknown. “It’s in our nature as humans to explore,” she said. “We will always keep exploring, but we need to make sure we do it in a healthy way.”

By keeping our vision sharp.

Dr. Travis Hein ’97
Professor, Medical Physiology, School of Medicine


After a few weeks in space, many people encounter an unexpected effect: blurred vision. Approximately 60% of astronauts report impaired vision when viewing objects up close or at a distance. While their eyesight may return to normal once they return to Earth, for some, the effect is permanent.

But how can a trip to space result in a trip to the eye doctor? It begins with gravity. On Earth, gravity pulls your blood and other fluids toward your feet, but without this force, astronauts experience more fluids displaced to their heads. This extra fluid in the brain and eyes can cause the retina at the back of the eye to swell, contributing to impaired vision that NASA has dubbed Spaceflight Associated Neuro-ocular Syndrome (SANS).

While all astronauts experience this fluid redistribution, not all develop SANS. Dr. Travis Hein ’97 and a team in the School of Medicine are working to understand why in the hopes of finding a cure. By studying animals that have experienced low-gravity environments aboard the International Space Station, they seek to understand the role blood vessels and lymphatic vessels play in SANS and identify potential biomarkers that make a person more likely to be affected.

Because SANS could worsen the more a person is in space, it’s critical to address as NASA prepares to send people on longer missions. “This is an amazing opportunity to advance our knowledge of space exploration and medicine,” Hein said.

By building a better spacesuit.

Dr. Bonnie Dunbar
John & Bea Slattery Chair, Aerospace Engineering


To venture into the vacuum of space and stroll on the moon or Mars, astronauts need a suit that maintains the proper atmospheric pressure, oxygen levels and temperatures. But moving in a suit of pressurized air isn’t a walk in the park. “It’s similar to working in a balloon, and astronauts are easily fatigued,” explained Dr. Bonnie Dunbar.

As the head of Texas A&M’s Aerospace Human Systems Lab, Dunbar is leading a team to create a suit with enhanced mobility that can be custom designed to fit each person perfectly. “If astronauts are conducting research on the moon for six hours in a vacuum, it’s important that they’re not fatigued from working against the spacesuit itself,” she said.

A former astronaut who’s logged five trips to space, Dunbar is also involved in projects across the university that study various physical challenges the body experiences in low gravity. To examine these effects without leaving the planet, she recently helped Aggieland gain a centrifuge, which spins participants to simulate low gravity through centrifugal force.

Thanks to a gift from Roku CEO Anthony Wood ’87 through the Greater Houston Community Foundation, this valuable tool will be upgraded to become a world-class centrifuge that could help the university collaborate more closely with NASA on future research. “The bigger picture is to help Texas A&M become a major player in human spaceflight,” Dunbar said, “and I’m grateful to the Wood family for helping make this vision come true.”

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