Bioastronautics: An Introduction

Hello! Welcome to "The Bioastronaut". This is the first of many writings in my journey to learn about the field of bioastronautics and to teach it to those interested. I plan to write 3-4 of these each week. To be fair, I am an engineer, so math is my true first language. I want to note that this first post will be less technical than the future posts, it's just meant to be an introduction to the topics I'd like to talk about. As I write more posts, my writing skills should improve, so stay tuned! Let's get started.

What is bioastronautics?

Bioastronautics is the fusion of astronautical engineering with biology. It's main purpose as a field is to solve the problems necessary to support life in space. People studying bioastronautics encounter a wide array of questions from "how can we grow and harvest crops in space?" to "how can we ensure the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of astronauts on the space station?". In short, it is the study of the systems designed to support and interface with life in space.

NASA astronaut Jessica Meir performing an experiment aboard the ISS [1]

Why bioastronautics?

To demonstrate the importance of bioastronautics, lets ask some questions about the image above. What systems are in place that keep astronaut Jessica Weir alive aboard the space station? For instance, how is she able to breathe air? How does she get food and water? Does she have a comfortable place to sleep? How does she maintain stable internal body temperature? All of these questions need to be addressed via engineering before we put humans and other organisms in space. Thus, bioastronautics is a vital field of study because we must ensure that these systems perform their functions effectively and for long periods of time before maintenance is needed.

The Space Environment:

The space environment poses a plethora of challenges for living organisms. These problems are the main focus of bioastronautics. Some of these challenges include:
  • Microgravity
    • Physiologically, life on Earth is not evolved to live in low-gravity environments for long periods of time
  • Ultraviolet and Ionizing Radiation
    • Life on earth is not normally exposed to the large doses of radiation seen in the space environment
  • Temperature
    • The ISS may see extreme temperatures ranging from -120°C to 120°C (-184°F to 248°F) [2]
  • Lack of breathable air
    • For gases, only a low density of hydrogen and helium are present in space
  • General living conditions
    • Living and travelling in space can pose psychological issues due to the cold nature of machinery and the dark expanse
    • Lack of a biosphere to provide food, water, and natural human waste management
Those are some of the main challenges, but if you think of some other ones, feel free to comment them below!  

Bioastronautics in action:

Issue: Lack of water in the ISS
Solution: Water Generation System (WGS)
Summary: Recycles and purifies wastewater, condensation, and the water from spacesuit hydration systems [3].
The Water Generation System [4].

Issue: Lack of oxygen in the ISS
Solution: Oxygen Generation System (OGS)
Summary: Electrolyzes water (H2O) from the WGS to separate it into hydrogen (H) and oxygen (O) particles [3].
The Oxygen Generation System [5].

Issue: The physiological effects of weightlessness
Solution: The Advanced Resistive Exercise Device
Summary: A unique exercise machine designed specifically for the ISS (traditional machines do not work in space) [6].
The Advanced Resistive Exercise Device [6].