Assistant Prof. of Bioastronautics Eliah Overbey Publishes Groundbreaking Research on Private Space Travel
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Jun 12, 2024

Assistant Prof. of Bioastronautics Eliah Overbey Publishes Groundbreaking Research on Private Space Travel

Overbey’s research leads to '10-fold increase' in publicly available space health data. Her research has been profiled in more than a dozen major news outlets.

Maggie Kelly
Maggie Kelly
University of Austin

University of Austin Assistant Professor of Bioastronautics Dr. Eliah Overbey published a groundbreaking series of studies in Nature on June 11 on the viability of civilian spaceflight. She led a multi-institutional team of researchers whose findings indicated that low orbital travel is safe with minimal training. 

Overbey and her team conducted extensive testing and monitoring of crew members' physical and cognitive health, employing Apple watches as well as the pioneering use of ultrasound technology to observe the astronauts who provided the most diverse cohort of subjects in the history of space travel. Researchers obtained more than 3,000 samples from the four participating members of SpaceX’s 2021 Inspiration4 flight. The data they amassed represented a "10-fold increase in publicly available human space [cell health] data," according to Nature. 

Overbey’s findings have been profiled in over a dozen major news outlets, including Science, The New York Times, The Washington Post, ReutersThe Associated PressUSA Today, The Times UK, and Fox Weather

From The New York Times:

Crew members consented to participating in medical experiments — collecting samples of blood, urine, feces and saliva during their flight — and to allowing the data to be cataloged in an online archive known as the Space Omics and Medical Atlas, or SOMA, which is publicly available. ...

With more private citizens buying trips to space, the hope is that SOMA will quickly fill up with more information about a wider range of people than the older white men who were selected to be astronauts in the early decades of the space age. That could lead to treatments tailored to individual astronauts to combat the effects of spaceflight.

The wealth of information has also allowed scientists to compare short-term effects with what happens during longer missions.

From The Washington Post:

Spaceflight can be brutal on the human body — bones lose density, muscles atrophy, the immune system goes haywire — and countermeasures will be necessary if large numbers of people will be routinely living and working in space, according to a massive array of research papers published Tuesday.

But authors of the new research said there is nothing they have seen so far that would prevent the continued expansion of humanity into space, including long-duration journeys to Mars.

From The Times UK:

Some of the findings were reassuring for short-term space tourism, with four astronauts who spent three days in low Earth orbit on a spacecraft operated by SpaceX in 2021 showing no lasting ill effects.

However, another study found signs that the kidneys were likely to be seriously damaged by longer missions. The researchers looked at plasma and urine samples from astronauts, as well as kidney tissue from mice that had been sent to space. The results suggest that the physical structure of the kidney changes due to microgravity, affecting its ability to control the body’s mineral and salt levels.

From Fox Weather:

Medical research into the biological effects of spaceflight took a giant leap this week after data from the first all-private mission, Inspiration 4, helped researchers worldwide reach new conclusions about low-gravity impacts on the human body. 

Nature: 'Short-duration spaceflight presents relatively low risk for commercial crews'

Among Overbey’s findings published in Nature:

A civilian crew can be selected, trained, and deployed in less than 6 months, and shows that they can lead experiments, process samples, and significantly contribute to spaceflight research and development… Most metrics of the astronauts (e.g. gene expression profiles, telomere lengths, cytokine levels) were either stable, or quickly reverted back to baseline after landing. These data suggest that short-duration spaceflight presents relatively low risk for commercial crews.

Inspiration4 data will serve as a rich foundation for scaling and enhancing the knowledge base on early phases of space physiology and expanding our understanding of spaceflight-associated effects on human health. Finally, at least one of these same crew members will be present on future missions, and continue to contribute to long-term studies of astronaut health, which will also help delineate the long-term impacts of spaceflight and continue to prepare future astronauts for their missions…

The study of the parallels between the physiological impacts of spaceflight and aging, chronic disease and immune system disorders using multi-omic data can pave the way for therapeutics applicable to conditions on Earth.

“Our understanding of the human body lags behind the technology that makes space flight possible, but the research we are conducting at the University of Austin will help bridge that gap,” Overbey said. “I would like to thank the dozens of researchers and funders who contributed to this study, as well as participants who will help to foster medical breakthroughs not only for those in space but here on earth. 

“A special thank you to the senior authors on the paper, Drs. Christopher Mason and Cem Meydan, at Weill Cornell Medicine, who are my co-founders for the SOMA data portal and first commercial astronaut sample biobank. It is only the first small step in what will enable type of large-scale human health analysis we require to become a thriving multi-planetary species.”

Overbey and her collaborators are in the midst of conducting similar studies on astronauts scheduled to embark on another private space flight in the summer of 2024.

Read more on what brought Eliah Overbey to UATX.

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