Law Professor Calls for Ethical Approach to Human Experiments in Space

Michelle Hanlon co-authored article published in the journal Science

OXFORD, Miss. – University of Mississippi law professor Michelle Hanlon co-authored an article published today (Sept. 28) in the journal Science that offers best practices for human research in space.

Each time astronauts venture into space provides researchers with data on how the human body reacts to long-term exposure to zero gravity and other facets of space life. As the race to build communities, tourism and business in space accelerates, humans must continue to share this physiological data, Hanlon said.

“If we want to create communities in space – and we do – we have to understand how the body is affected so we can make that life as comfortable as possible,” she said. “You can’t just say the body changes; you have to know how the body changes.” 

The article, “Ethically cleared to launch?” is the result of a meeting of 30 bioethicists, health policy experts, space health researchers, commercial spaceflight professionals, law specialists and government regulators from across the globe. These specialists met last December at the Banbury Center of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Cold Spring, New York, where they discussed issues of human experimentation and research in space.

As space tourism becomes a reality – Virgin Galactic is offering trips to space, with the next launch slated for Oct. 5 – the issue of whether these companies will continue to collect biological data on space tourists, as space agencies have on astronauts, has become more relevant.

The U.N.’s Outer Space Treaty of 1967 designates astronauts as “envoys of mankind.” Hanlon wants to encourage space tourists, as potential future envoys, to help researchers better understand space life. 

“As the population of humans going to space increases, we have tremendous opportunities to do the basic science to understand what it’s like to live and work in space,” she said. “If you travel to space, maybe there is an additional responsibility because the Space Treaty looks at you a little bit differently.” 

While the choice to collect and share this data is optional, it is necessary for scientists to have a wealth of information about what happens to a body in space from a variety of sources, Hanlon said.

“Only 650 or so people have gone to space, but if you look at the astronauts, they are all constantly doing experiments on how space affects them,” she said. “We’ve sent 650 very fit people into space. What is it like on a body that hasn’t been training for eight years to go to the space station?” 

Hanlon said she hopes that the article provides guiding principles for responsible conduct in respect to human research in space while reminding the scientific community that the issue of space travel and tourism is no longer coming – it is here.

“We want to wake up the scientific community to the fact that this is happening now,” she said. “We need to start understanding these issues now, before we have a lunar community.”