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Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

NASA's proposal to update its radiation limits for astronauts would make space a more equal place for women.

The big picture: Historically, female astronauts haven't been able to fly as often as their male counterparts, in part because of strict limits on the amount of radiation exposure NASA finds allowable.

  • "A female will fly only 45 to 50 percent of the missions that a male can fly," former astronaut Peggy Whitson said in 2013.
  • "I know that they are scaling the risk to be the same, but the opportunities end up causing gender discrimination based on just the total number of options available for females to fly."

Driving the news: A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine suggests NASA should move ahead with a plan to use one career-long radiation limit for all astronauts.

  • A set limit will allow for more equality in spaceflight opportunities, according to the report.
  • The new radiation limits — which would be set at a career-long 600 millisieverts for any astronaut, male or female — would put NASA in line with many other space agencies around the world, which have set standard limits for all of their astronauts.

Why it matters: Radiation — specifically galactic cosmic rays — is one of the major limiting factors for NASA as it's working to send people to deep space destinations like the Moon or Mars.

  • "We know that the central nervous system is relatively susceptible to this type of radiation, so we're thinking about cognitive effects or any mood changes that could potentially happen from this exposure," Emmanuel Urquieta, an assistant professor at the Center for Space Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, told me.
  • Inflammation in the cardiovascular system is also a major concern.
  • Deep space radiation is difficult to replicate on Earth, making studying its health effects complicated. Right now, radiation standards are based on limited data in part collected after the U.S. bombing of Japan in World War II and mouse studies.
  • But new studies could help scientists bridge what they know about radiation's effects from mouse studies with studies using human tissue — without putting people in danger.

What to watch: Astronauts traveling to and from Mars would far exceed even the new career-long radiation limit proposed by NASA.

  • The new report suggests the space agency could establish a waiver system to say exactly what kinds of missions are worthy of exceeding that limit, but that shouldn't necessarily be used for any given trip to Mars, experts say.
  • "The point of having a standard is it's something for us to think of as a hard limit," Jeff Kahn, one of the committee members who helped author the new report, told me. "If we can't do what we want now because it's too much radiation exposure, then we need to figure out ways to make it safer for astronauts."

Go deeper

Sep 14, 2021 - Podcasts
How It Happened

The Next Astronauts Part IV: Risk

In part four of How it Happened: The Next Astronauts, Axios space reporter Miriam Kramer learns how the Inspiration4 crew is grappling with risk, something every company in the space industry and all astronauts must confront.

  • Kramer speaks with the crew, the parent of a crew member, and a former NASA safety expert about how memories of the Challenger explosion have shaped the way the space industry prepares astronauts for risk.
Oct 5, 2021 - Podcasts
How It Happened

The Next Astronauts Part V: The Launch

In part five of How it Happened: The Next Astronauts, Axios space reporter Miriam Kramer follows the Inspiration4 crew to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, to cover their launch and catches up with each of them after their return.

  • Kramer takes listeners to the press center at the Kennedy Space Center and inside of a pre-launch press conference with the four civilian astronauts the day before launch.
  • Kramer reports on the launch from on the ground and analyzes the livestream hosted by SpaceX, including the abrupt termination of real-time access to the crew once they reached orbit.
  • She tracks the crew during their three days in orbit, their high-risk descent back through the Earth's atmosphere, and what the safety and success of the mission means for the entire industry going forward.

Subscribe to How It Happened wherever you listen to podcasts.

  • For more of Miriam Kramer's space reporting, subscribe to Axios Space.

Credits: The Next Astronauts is reported and produced by Miriam Kramer, Amy Pedulla, Naomi Shavin, and Alice Wilder. Dan Bobkoff is Executive Producer. Mixing, sound design, and music supervision by Alex Sugiura. Theme music and original score by Michael Hanf. Fact-checking and research by Jacob Knutson. Alison Snyder is a managing editor at Axios and Sara Kehaulani Goo is executive editor. Special thanks to Axios co-founders Mike Allen, Jim VandeHei and Roy Schwartz.

Miriam Kramer, author of Space
Oct 5, 2021 - Science

The winds within Jupiter's Great Red Spot are gaining speed

The Great Red Spot seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. Photo: NASA/ESA/STScI

The winds of one of the most recognizable storms in the solar system — Jupiter's Great Red Spot — are speeding up.

Why it matters: This weather report for another world is possible because the Hubble Space Telescope has been keeping a close eye on the storm for more than 10 years.