House Space Subcommittee Holds Hearing on Astronaut Health Care

Working outside the International Space Station on the second spacewalk of Expedition 45, Nov. 6, 2015. (Credits: NASA)
Working outside the International Space Station on the second spacewalk of Expedition 45, Nov. 6, 2015. (Credits: NASA)

WASHINGTON (House Space Subcommittee PRs) — On Wednesday, the House Subcommittee on Space  on held a hearing titled Human Spaceflight Ethics and Obligations: Options for Monitoring, Diagnosing, and Treating Former Astronauts. The hearing examined NASA’s existing health care program for current and former astronauts.

Through its Lifetime Surveillance of Astronaut Health program, NASA screens and monitors current astronauts for occupational related injury or disease. However this program does not provide for diagnosis or treatment of those no longer serving, nor for “management” and retired astronauts. Instead these astronauts are eligible for treatment from the Department of Labor or the Department of Veterans Affairs. This is not the best process for the former astronauts or NASA’s developing knowledge base.

Witnesses, including former astronauts Captain Chris Cassidy, Captain Scott Kelly and Captain Michael Lopez-Alegria, as well as Dr. Richard Williams, Chief Health and Medical Officer at NASA, and Dr. Jeffrey Kahn, Professor of Bioethics and Public Policy at Johns Hopkins University testified that NASA should be given the authority to monitor, diagnose, and treat former astronauts.

According to NASA, medical experts have established that an association exists between human spaceflight and the increased risk of developing conditions such as cataracts, reduced visual acuity, and orthopedic/musculoskeletal injuries. However, because of the small number of U.S. astronauts who have flown in space and the corresponding small data set currently available on the health impacts of astronaut exposure to long duration flights, characterizing those risks is a major challenge for NASA and for its future human exploration plans.

Space Subcommittee Chairman Brian Babin (R-Texas): “I believe everyone here wants to make sure we are doing the right things for our astronauts. They put themselves in harm’s way to advance our knowledge of the universe and they bring great pride to our nation. I am proud to say that I represent a great number of these astronauts who call the Houston area home. As a health care professional and as their representative, you could say it is my duty to make sure these folks are taken care of properly.

“But this isn’t simply about addressing a moral and ethical obligation, we receive significant and on-going benefits by providing this care. The long-term health information gained from the treatment of former astronauts will give us a greater understanding of radiation exposure, vision impairment, bone-loss, and many other ailments. This in turn will assist us in developing better monitoring and treatment protocols here on earth for everyone, not just astronauts.”

Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas): “In an age when space flight has come to seem almost routine, it is easy to overlook how dangerous it is and how little we know about the long-term health effects of spaceflight.

“We, as a nation, have a responsibility to ensure that our astronauts, both active and retired, are provided with appropriate monitoring, diagnosis, and treatment of spaceflight related injuries and disease.”

Ranking Member Donna F. Edwards (D-MD) said in her opening statement, “Health risks during long duration flights include both short-term health consequences as well as potential long-term health conditions that may arise months and sometimes years after an astronaut’s service. This is a problem.  Because of the small number of U.S. astronauts who have flown in space, and the corresponding small data set currently available on astronaut exposure to long duration flights, characterizing those risks is a major challenge for NASA. However, if we are to go to Mars, as I have strongly advocated, mitigating these health risks is critical.  But we also need to ensure that the risks NASA’s astronauts take are recognized and addressed by the American people.

“While active astronauts receive comprehensive health care, former astronauts do not. This needs to change.  We need to ensure that care is provided for all of our NASA astronauts, not just those who are on active status.

“Providing ongoing medical care for active and former astronauts will give NASA the needed insight to enable earlier detection and treatment of any potential medical problems that could result from human spaceflight. It will also provide NASA with the data that are needed to help mitigate against health risks related to future human space exploration.”

Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) said in her statement, “Increased risk of cancer, musculoskeletal conditions, and ocular conditions are just a few of the known health concerns related to human spaceflight. But there is still much that we are learning and need to learn about the potential effects of space on the human body and on human health.  Congress has acted to ensure that others we have put in harm’s way, such as those who have served in the military, receive lifetime healthcare. It is time we do the same for NASA astronauts.”

For more information about today’s hearing, including the webcast and witness testimony, visit the Committee’s website.