Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia is taking part in the first-ever private mission to the International Space Station.
The Rakia space mission selected three projects from Jefferson that will study the impact of space travel on the human body and mind. The mission, which will include a total of 44 projects, is scheduled to launch in early 2022.
The mission will be the first flight of an entirely private group of people -- tourists, not NASA astronauts -- to travel to the International Space Station. Four space tourists will be on board.
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Jefferson is working with researchers from Sheba Medical Center in Israel to create experiments that non-scientists can perform in space. Every aspect of the experiment must be flight certified, which rules out some common procedures such as drawing blood into glass collection tubes, researcher Adam Dicker said.
Another researcher, John Hanifin, said he has worked closely with NASA to create a process for teaching non-scientists how to run experiments.
"You basically spell out in detail what needs to be done in a document that flies with the space traveler," Hanifin said, adding that the researchers on Earth are not typically in contact with the space travelers while they perform the experiments.
Dicker, professor and chair of the radiation oncology department, will collaborate on a project to study the impact of space travel on immune dysfunction, which is a depressed immune system that could lead to infections.
Dicker's team hopes to determine what causes immune dysfunction -- low-dose radiation, microgravity, stress or another factor -- through the proteome, a collection of proteins found in blood plasma.
"There was a big learning curve about what's possible, what's doable? How do you find out about flight-certified stuff that you can put up there?" Dicker said. "Putting together a proposal was intense because no one has done this before, at least not at the proteome level."
Another project led by Hanifin will monitor stress and sleep while testing stress interventions in space travelers. The project will look at the impact of lighting on sleep and performance on the International Space Station, where there is no natural daylight rhythm.
The research will inform our understanding of the physiological impact of lighting systems installed in offices and hospitals on Earth, as well as the use of cell phones and computer screens late at night, said Hanifin, who is an assistant professor of neurology.
The project will use wearables that resemble activity trackers to monitor astronauts' vital signs and sleep. An audiologist on board the station will also study how noise contributes to overall stress.
Urology professor Paul Chung will lead a project that aims to determine whether low gravity and the space station environment can impact an astronaut's urinary microbiome, which could lead to diseases and disorders in the urinary system. Urinary-tract infections and urinary retention can pose serious problems on space missions and may create issues for future space tourists, Chung said.
"Learning more about what changes in space, our body experiences, will help us to protect future travelers," he added.
The team of researchers and astronauts will collect urine samples from before, during and after the mission to study how microbes in the urine change.
“The Rakia mission selected all three of the projects that Jefferson and our collaborators submitted,” Zvi Grunwald, executive director of the Jefferson Israel Center, said in a press release. “This mission is a very unique opportunity to understand life in space and how it affects human health.”
The Ramon Foundation, an organization focused on Israeli innovation in science, aviation and space, and the Israeli Space Agency at the Institute of Science and Technology are leading the mission, which is part of the Axiom Space Ax-1 Project.
Elon Musk's SpaceX Crew Dragon will transport the astronauts to the International Space Station.
"We're just laying the foundation down," Dicker said. "You've got to start somewhere."