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4 astronauts will help scientists learn how space travel affects the human body

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A crew of four private astronauts is set to launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida this morning. They'll be headed to the International Space Station. It's the second privately chartered mission launched by SpaceX in less than a year. But it's not just a joyride. From member station WMFE in Orlando, Brendan Byrne reports the mission will give scientists a chance to explore how space travel affects the human body.

BRENDAN BYRNE, BYLINE: Last week, NASA's astronaut Mark Vande Hei returned to earth from the International Space Station. That was after spending 355 days in space, longer than any American before him.

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MARK VANDE HEI: This type of long-duration flight is something we need to do to help further our ability to explore farther and farther away from our home planet, Earth.

BYRNE: Spaceflight takes a tremendous toll on the human body. Astronauts are pelted with increased radiation exposure, which could have long-term effects, like cancer. Floating in space changes the human body, leading to bone and muscle loss. It also alters the physical shape of the eyes of astronauts, causing blurry vision.

JENNIFER FOGARTY: When you talk about humans going into space and coming out of space, it's rough.

BYRNE: Jennifer Fogarty is with the Translational Research Institute for Space Health. One of the institute's goals is to understand how and why the body changes while in space and prepares future astronauts for those health effects. That's important to understand if space agencies like NASA want to send humans to places like the moon or Mars. Those trips could be longer than Vande Hei has almost yearlong mission. And the environments on the lunar surface and the red planet will be harsh, with limited medical resources. But scientists haven't had a lot of people to study and collect data from. Only about 600 people have been to space. It's not a very diverse pool of research subjects. Most are incredibly fit and healthy. And most have been men. That, says Fogarty, will soon change.

FOGARTY: I think commercial space has really become a tremendous offering to open up those possibilities of data gathering at large scale.

BYRNE: SpaceX will be ferrying the crew of four up to the station. But the trip was organized by the company Axiom. Christian Maender, who's with Axiom, says the mission isn't just a joyride for these passengers who can afford the hard-to-come-by spots. The price of even one seat to the International Space Station - or ISS - is estimated to cost tens of millions of dollars.

CHRISTIAN MAENDER: What I think is critically important about it is it's not just about bringing visitors to the ISS, they're bringing with them a significant complement of research that they're intending to conduct while they're there. And we've collaborated heavily with NASA to get that ready.

BYRNE: Maender says the three customers on this mission will spend about 60 to 70 hours each conducting research while on the station, including looking at the impacts of space travel on the human eye. Meanwhile, researchers back here on Earth at the University of Central Florida will be examining how these space travelers' eyes might change. People in space sometimes develop what's known as spaceflight associated neuro-ocular syndrome. That's when the effects of weightlessness reshape the structure of the eye, causing vision problems. The long-term goal is to prevent that from happening to future space travelers, especially on longer missions. And Axiom's Christian Maender says it's not just for highly trained astronauts heading to Mars.

MAENDER: What does it mean to keep a more diverse population of humans healthy in space as we start to expand from this very self-selected cohort of astronauts that have flown to space to date and start to look at flying more and more people like you and me?

BYRNE: Companies like Axiom are also working to build a commercial space station in orbit. These medical findings will hopefully make it possible for regular people to safely travel into space if and when we ever get the chance.

For NPR News, I'm Brendan Byrne in Orlando. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.