"During a subcommittee meeting of NASA's Advisory Committee earlier this month, former space shuttle program manager Wayne Hale asked Paloski why the space agency wasn't considering missions longer than a year to truly reflect the time astronauts would have to spend away from Earth were they to go to Mars or other destinations beyond cislunar orbit. "It seems to me that you're not there yet in determining the health factors for a 30-month voyage," Hale said. In a follow-up interview, the Human Research Program's chief scientist, John Charles, explained to Ars that from a logistic and scientific standpoint, the one-year missions offered a reasonable compromise. The station probably has seven years left in its lifetime, and because of advanced planning requirements, there would be the capability to fly, at most, just a single two- or three-year mission during that time. Not only would this adversely affect crew rotations, there's also the question of statistical significance from just two data points. "Darn it, we biologists like to have statistical validity," Charles explained. "We have discussed it internally and really think we're going to be pushing our luck to get five more one-year missions during the station's lifetime, to get a statistically significant database."
Keith's note: I love it when NASA talks about science and statistics. Gee, no one at JSC complained when they flew one, single, elderly person (John Glenn) for "science" - once i.e. N=1 and they have not repeated that experiment in the following 20 years. Has anyone seen the data? As a former NASA space biologist who used to run peer reviews of this sort of research, I totally understand the need for larger research specimen numbers. But when you take all of the informed consent regulations and risk models that NASA uses into account, sending humans to Mars on a multi-year mission, without any actual experience flying humans in space for that long would be unethical - again, according to NASA's own established procedures.
But if NASA decided to look to other exploration modalities such as mountaineering and polar research - and officially accepted different ways of parsing - and then allowing crew members to personally accept medical risk in exchange for the chance to explore, maybe they could save themselves a lot of time and effort. NASA can't have it both ways. They ask for the money to build all of this incredibly capable stuff in space then they are afraid to use it for the very purposes that it was supposedly built.
I spent a month living at 17,600 feet at Everest Base Camp while my friend, astronaut Scott Parazynski (who was also John Glenn's orbital doctor) risked his life to reach the summit. He trained as much as he could but in the end he was going to do something he had not done before. In the end it was his choice. He signed waivers in order to do this. While I was much safer at Base Camp, I was still at heightened physical risk to due to my age and my prolonged presence at that altitude. But I signed waivers too. I watched two immense avalanches a few thousand feet from my tent. One of them killed a person whose tent was near mine. Years later an avalanche killed people in the precise location where Scott and I pitched our tents for a month.
You can prepare all you want for stuff like this but at some point you just have to sign off on the risk and go for it. NASA cannot seem to decide whether it truly wants to accept the risk inherent in the human exploration of other worlds - or just study it incessantly. Until it does we'll all be stuck with half-hearted, semi-relevant research on the ISS. And then the ISS will be gone.
Here's a book from an event John Grunsfeld and I put together back in 2004 on this topic for NASA: "Risk and Exploration". Its not as if people at NASA have not talked about risk. Rather its whether they really want to make the same tough choices that other explorers do.