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Women may have edge in space travel, new research suggests

By Isabella Wilson
By Isabella Wilson

Recent studies indicate that women might handle the challenges of space travel better than men, recovering more quickly from the physical changes caused by spaceflight. This insight emerges from the Space Omics and Medical Atlas (SOMA) research package, published in the prestigious Nature Portfolio journals. The SOMA research used medical data from different space missions, especially samples from the private SpaceX Inspiration 4 mission.

The Inspiration 4 mission, a significant milestone in space exploration, saw four civilian astronauts—Jared Isaacman, Hayley Arceneaux, Sian Proctor, and Chris Sembroski—take a three-day journey into low-Earth orbit in September 2021. This mission provided invaluable samples, such as blood and skin, which researchers from 25 countries analyzed to understand the biological impacts of spaceflight.

Recovery Differences Between Genders

Findings from these studies revealed that space travel causes significant chromatin changes in immune cells, specifically T-cells and monocyte cells. While both men and women showed a high recovery rate of about 95% of these biological changes, female astronauts generally returned to their baseline states faster than their male counterparts. Christopher Mason from Weill Cornell Medicine pointed out that women might be naturally more adept at managing physiological changes due to their capability to bear children. “Maybe being able to tolerate large, large changes in physiology and fluid dynamics may be great for being able to manage pregnancy, but also manage the stress of spaceflight at a physiological level,” he said.

However, Mason and his colleagues stress that it is too early to definitively claim that women are superior space travelers. More extensive data, involving a larger pool of female astronaut samples, is needed to confirm these preliminary findings. As of now, fewer than 100 women have ventured into space, compared to over 600 men.

Radiation Risks for Female Astronauts

While the studies suggest a quicker recovery for women, there are also concerns about radiation-induced cancers. Susan Bailey from Colorado State University highlighted that women might be more vulnerable to certain types of cancer, such as breast and lung cancer, due to space radiation. “A word of caution is that some previous work has shown that females may be more susceptible to some of the radiation-induced cancers like breast and even lung,” she said.

Research on how space radiation impacts female reproduction is still in its infancy, and the limited number of female astronauts has made it challenging to assess the full risks. A comprehensive review of earlier studies, published in January, emphasized the need for more data to understand these risks thoroughly.

Broader Implications for Space Travel

The SOMA research could pave the way for more targeted studies on how different demographics, including sexes and age groups, respond to spaceflight. The diverse ages and backgrounds of the Inspiration 4 crew, which included the youngest American to orbit Earth, 29-year-old Hayley Arceneaux, provide a valuable dataset for these investigations.

As private spaceflights become more frequent, the accumulation of medical data will help refine our understanding of space travel’s effects on various populations. This growing body of knowledge will be crucial for preparing astronauts for longer missions, such as trips to the moon or even Mars, which NASA aims to achieve in the coming decades.

In summary, while women may exhibit certain advantages in recovering from space travel, the journey to fully understanding these dynamics and ensuring the safety of all astronauts continues.

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