Institutional Review Board at NASA

The Belmont Report and its central principles provide the ethical foundation for all of NASA’s research. This report, in combination with Federal Regulations (Protection of Human Subjects, 2018), guides the mechanisms that NASA and others can use to review potential research and exploration endeavors. As the Agency notes on its website, the goal of its Institutional Review Board (IRB), which operates in accordance with the aforementioned federal regulations, is to review research to ensure the “ethical, safe, and equitable treatment of the subjects” (https://irb.nasa/gov/). Among other activities, this Board compares the risks of research to its benefits for the individual or society at large, identifies mechanisms that can reduce risks, and serves as the ethical committee that oversees all research. NASA specifically lists the three principles from the Belmont Report and its IRB ensures the four protections outlined in Table 1.2.

These direct references to the Belmont Report and its content demonstrate that the ethical implications of NASA’s research and exploration can potentially be evaluated via the ethical standards that scientists have refined via the documents previously outlined.

Applying Ethical Guidelines to Human Exploration and Analog Research Environments

Current exploration of the oceans and space are characterized by vastly different approaches compared with those of earlier explorers. One clear distinction is the use of analog research environments, particularly in the case of space exploration, to test specific scenarios, concepts, and technology in a more controlled yet similar environment prior to the intended space mission. Because no one analog (to date) can simulate all aspects of a human space mission, various analog environments have been established to simulate particular aspects of future missions. Another distinction


Four Protections Ensured by NASA's IRB




Voluntary participation, without coercion in any form, and indicated by free and informed consent;


Freedom for a subject to withdraw from an experiment at any time, for any reason, without penalty;


An appropriate balance between potential benefits of the research to the subject or to society and the risks assumed by the subject;


Fair procedures and outcomes in the selection of the research subjects.

relates to the nature and complexity of the technology required to undertake these endeavors - in that they are inherently extremely costly and new technologies require extensive testing and evaluation prior to use in operational environments. The most central and enduring alignment with earlier explorers is that humans who apply to participate in these endeavors (e.g., over 18,000 applications received for 14 or fewer NASA astronaut positions in the last open application period according to Lewin (2016)) are committed to the idea that benefits, both personally and for humanity more broadly, outweigh the very real risks, up to and including death.

Evaluating the ethics of human exploration and research in analog environments first requires determining the extent to which existing ethical guidelines sufficiently address the complexities involved in human exploration and analog research environments. Existing ethical guidelines and regulations require that, where humans are to be involved in research, several actions are taken. They further require those actions to have been independently reviewed and evaluated prior to implementation. NASA’s IRB exists to ensure that research endeavors comport with the existing ethical guidelines and requirements, notably including:

  • • Establishing fair selection procedures for choosing research participants (Justice),
  • • Obtaining voluntary, informed consent to participate in the research (Respect for Persons), including:
  • • Fully describing the research purpose, methods, potential risks and benefits,
  • • Presenting the above such that the participant can comprehend the information, and
  • • Avoiding coercion in any form
  • • Taking conspicuous efforts to maximize possible benefits and minimize possible harm (Beneficence), including:
  • • Evaluating both the potential impact and probability of a risk or hazard,
  • • Reducing, to the extent possible, the likelihood of risks, and
  • • Ensuring the benefits outweigh the risks.

However, there are a number of nuances and questions involved in evaluating the sufficiency of the current ethical guidelines. First, what are the ethical implications associated with the fact that in many instances, astronauts voluntarily apply and are hired to take part in activities that may be risky (as opposed to simply being research volunteers)? Second, are the participant-focused requirements sufficient (e.g., requiring informed consent and fair selection) for NASA’s endeavors? Third, to what extent are the beneficence-related requirements sufficiently defined for these endeavors? Finally, is there anything missing, from an ethical perspective, that should be considered?

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