Ethical guidelines needed before human research in commercial spaceflight is ready for liftoff

A global, multidisciplinary team of bioethicists, health policy experts, commercial spaceflight professionals and space health researchers, including Rachael Seidler from the University of Florida, has developed guiding principles and best practices to help ensure human research conducted in space is safe and inclusive. 

The proposed ethical guidelines will be released Friday in a policy paper published in Science and are the result of a workshop held at the Banbury Center of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory funded by the Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, at Baylor College of Medicine. 

“With commercial companies taking more people each year to space, opportunities for human space travel are rapidly expanding,” said Seidler, a professor of applied physiology and kinesiology at UF, “and it’s important that experiments taking place in space are as safe and productive as possible.” 

About 30 individuals participated in the workshop, most of whom were health policy experts, scientists with expertise in bioethics, government regulators, and representatives from private spaceflight companies, Seidler said.  

“We outlined potential ethical concerns facing the future of commercial space research and established guidelines for those who are traveling to space on their own dime,” she said. “We made our recommendations, and hopefully that will kickstart conversations.” 

While there are many government-sponsored research missions in space that operate under clear ethical guidelines, few guidelines and best practices exist for conducting responsible research in the commercial sector, said Dr. Vasiliki Rahimzadeh, first author of the paper and assistant professor at the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor. 

“Now is the time to develop that ethical framework, and it must be a multidisciplinary effort across the private and public sector,” she said. 

In the paper, the team proposes ethical guidelines for commercial space research based on four principles: social responsibility of research participants, scientific excellence in gathering research data, proportionality in balancing risks of spaceflight, and global stewardship in diverse participation. The authors also outline the need for adapting existing research practices and policies to commercial space flight, including informed consent, data protection, and steps to minimize health risks to participants.  

The paper’s authors point out that what is learned through space health research is valuable not only for future spaceflight but also for informing health issues on Earth.  

“That’s why it was important to have had the private space companies at the table helping establish best practices,” Seidler said. “They are participating in something that is paving the way for everyone and can benefit all mankind.” 

The work is supported by the Translational Research Institute for Space Health through NASA Cooperative Agreement NNX16AO69A.  

Karen Dooley September 28, 2023