NASA officials recognized last week that dead bodies were used to develop Orion landing systems. According to NASA, 'three human bodies were used in the tests at Ohio State University Medical Center' in 2007. Even if the results of the experiments helped NASA, one of its spokesman said that the space agency followed widely accepted ethical standards for using cadavers donated for research. He added that 'it's a socially awkward topic. The bodies are all carefully handled through all of the tests. We follow ethical medical procedures with these bodies that have been donated for science.' In fact, NASA relies more on computer simulations than on experiments with cadavers, but read more...
Most of the time, NASA is using "finite element (FE) seat and occupant simulations for assessing injury risk for Orion. With properly designed seats with side supports and restraints, even relatively high accelerations can be tolerated with no or minimal injury, especially for impacts with the astronauts lying on their backs in a seat oriented as shown" above. (Credit: NASA)
Before going further, here are some facts about the future Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle. Orion will be capable of carrying crew and cargo to the space station. It should be operational by 2015, and is expected to carry crews of four astronauts to the moon by 2020.
Now, let's return to NASA's experiments with dead bodies to test landing systems, spacesuits and seats. Here is a quote from NASA seat engineer Dustin Gohmert. "The testing with postmortem human subjects and mannequins is helping NASA to better define the human injury potential for the landing (forces) that we anticipate with Orion. The interface between the spacesuit and the seats is relatively complex, much more so than in an automobile -- even one from the racing industry."
Former astronaut Nancy Currie, who is now the chief engineer for NASA's Engineering and Safety Center at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, admits that "in some cases, the safety research conducted with crash-test dummies and computer models is insufficient for spaceflight."
However, this is rarely the case. Let's look for example at a research paper recently published by NASA, "Orion Crew Member Injury Predictions During Land and Water Landings" (PDF format, 19 pages, 1.55 MB, June 2008). By the way, the above picture comes from this document.
Here is the abstract. "A review of astronaut whole body impact tolerance is discussed for land or water landings of the next generation manned space capsule named Orion. LS-DYNA simulations of Orion capsule landings are performed to produce a low, moderate, and high probability of injury. The paper evaluates finite element (FE) seat and occupant simulations for assessing injury risk for the Orion crew and compares these simulations to whole body injury models commonly referred to as the Brinkley criteria. The FE seat and crash dummy models allow for varying the occupant restraint systems, cushion materials, side constraints, flailing of limbs, and detailed seat/occupant interactions to minimize landing injuries to the crew. The FE crash test dummies used in conjunction with the Brinkley criteria provides a useful set of tools for predicting potential crew injuries during vehicle landings."
As you can see, there is no mention of experiments with dead bodies. In fact, here is on of the conclusions of this report. "FE analysis and crash test dummy tests are capable of providing valuable insight into alternate crew member injury protection systems and should be employed for this purpose. The FEA model and the physical crash test dummies can be used to assess the effects of variations of restraint and support in a comparative manner and if validated with human response data, can provide quantitative assessments of crew injuries."
Sources: Mark Carreau, Houston Chronicle, July 18, 2008; and various websites
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