Dana Vaisler, a former intern with StemRad, demonstrates the AstroRad radiation protection vest, which NASA is testing for comfort and fit on the International Space Station. Photo courtesy of Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs
ORLANDO, Fla., Dec. 24 (UPI) -- NASA is testing a space radiation protection vest aboard the International Space Station that could shield astronauts from deadly solar flares on missions to the moon and Mars.
Solar storms with high doses of radiation are among the biggest threats to astronauts on deep space missions. The worst such storms could make space flyers too sick to function and eventually kill them.
The new vest is designed with flexible polyethylene shapes to fit men or women and protect their most vulnerable organs.
"We are trying to see if astronauts can wear it as long as possible, without experiencing pain or discomfort," said Oren Milstein, co-founder and CEO of vest maker StemRad, which is based in Tampa and in Tel Aviv, Israel.
"Several astronauts will wear the vest, with eight hours as the longest period, while sleeping," Milstein said.
Northrop Grumman's Cygnus cargo capsule delivered StemRad's space vest, called AstroRad to the space station in November 2019. Since then, astronauts have tested the vest, though NASA doesn't usually confirm who is involved in medical-related experiments.
StemRad has helped develop the AstroRad vest based on its 360 Gamma shield vest that protects first responders who must cover radioactive scenes.
Milstein helped found the company in 2011 partly in response to stories of firefighter deaths after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Russia.
StemRad is developing the vest for Lockheed Martin, which is the contractor responsible for the Orion crew capsule on NASA's planned Artemis moon missions.
Orion includes a space radiation protection chamber or closet that can be pulled over astronauts in a crisis, but that would only be viable for short periods, Milstein said. Radiation storms in space can last for days or weeks.
The vest provides targeted protection for the pelvis -- where large amounts of bone marrow can absorb radiation -- and other organs such as the lungs, breasts and ovaries, Milstein said.
"Trying to protect the entire body means adding a lot of weight," he said. "You can protect in a reasonable way, a fraction of your body, or a part of your body that happens to be the more sensitive part."
The space vest is produced at a cost of about $1 million each, Milstein said, but the Israel Space Agency is providing it as part of its contribution to the international Artemis moon mission effort.
The vest on the space station now is a smaller version designed for women, but Milstein said a male astronaut will wear it at some point.
NASA posted a brief note about testing in mid-December said astronauts continue to try out the vest.
"The AstroRad shields astronauts from space-borne ionizing radiation in an efficient way, provides operational simplification, and allows for the use of recycled material on-board the vehicle," according to the NASA update.
In the meantime, StemRad also has distributed limited new radiation suits for doctors and radiologists on Earth, who face elevated radiation exposure due to medical scanning equipment and radiation treatment.
The medical suit, called StemRad MD, provides both ease of use and better protection due to a heavy lead garment suspended by an exoskeleton frame that fits on the outside of the wearer's legs, said Jean Bismuth, 53, a specialist in vascular surgery at Houston Methodist hospital in Texas. He's had the suit since October.
"I was astonished when I first got it. I ran the hallways. I can sit and operate or I can stand," Bismuth said. "You have to have a little space awareness because the frames are on the outside of your legs, but this is an improvement for ergonomics and safety."
The International Space Station is photographed by Expedition 56 crew members from a Soyuz spacecraft after undocking on October 4, 2018. NASA astronauts Andrew Feustel and Ricky Arnold and Roscosmos cosmonaut Oleg Artemyev executed a fly-around of the orbiting laboratory to take pictures of the space station before returning home after spending 197 days in space. Photo courtesy of NASA/Roscosmos