Claim: Apollo astronauts experiencing higher rates of cardiovascular-related deaths

Can’t decide whether this is rocket stupidity or rocket dishonesty

Here is the table of results… see if you can figure out the problem.

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Got it? Yes, the result is based on a total of three (3) cases of heart disease deaths of out seven (7) Apollo astronauts.

Past the vanishingly small sample size and even smaller number of cases, heart disease is a natural disease of aging and the Apollo lunar astronauts were 10 years older than the other comparison groups.

A huge fail for Nature. Peer review? Pears could do a better job.

The media release is below.


Apollo astronauts experiencing higher rates of cardiovascular-related deaths
Study suggests exposure to deep space radiation likely the cause


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Members of the successful Apollo space program are experiencing higher rates of cardiovascular problems that are thought to be caused by their exposure to deep space radiation, according to a Florida State University researcher.

In a new paper in Scientific Reports, FSU Dean of the College of Human Sciences and Professor Michael Delp explains that the men who traveled into deep space as part of the lunar missions were exposed to levels of galactic cosmic radiation that have not been experienced by any other astronauts or cosmonauts. That exposure is now manifesting itself as cardiovascular problems.

“We know very little about the effects of deep space radiation on human health, particularly on the cardiovascular system,” Delp said. “This gives us the first glimpse into its adverse effects on humans.”

This is the first study looking at the mortality of Apollo astronauts. The Apollo program ran from 1961 to 1972, with 11 manned flights into space between 1968 and 1972. Nine of those flew beyond Earth’s orbit into deep space. The program is most notable for landing men on the moon as well as the failed mission of Apollo 13 that inspired the popular 1995 Ron Howard film.

Delp’s research is of special interest now as the United States and other nations, plus private organizations, make plans for deep space travel. NASA has unveiled plans for U.S. orbital missions around the moon from 2020 to 2030 in preparation for a manned flight to Mars. Russia, China and the European Space Agency are all looking at lunar missions. And SpaceX, owned by Elon Musk, has proposed landing humans on Mars by 2026.

As a group, astronauts are highly educated and have access to top medical care, meaning their healthcare outcomes are generally better than the general population. But the group of men in the Apollo program experienced different environmental conditions than anyone else in the world when they traveled into deep space.

Delp found that 43 percent of deceased Apollo astronauts died from a cardiovascular problem. That is four to five times higher than non-flight astronauts and astronauts who have traveled in low Earth orbit.

Of the 24 men who flew into deep space on the Apollo lunar missions, eight have died and seven were included in the study. The eighth — Edgar Mitchell — died after the data analysis had been completed.

Delp and his colleagues also exposed mice to the type of radiation that Apollo astronauts would have experienced. After six months — the equivalent of 20 human years — the mice demonstrated an impairment of arteries that is known to lead to the development of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease in humans.

“What the mouse data show is that deep space radiation is harmful to vascular health,” Delp said.

Delp is working with NASA to conduct additional studies on the Apollo astronauts regarding their cardiovascular health.


12 thoughts on “Claim: Apollo astronauts experiencing higher rates of cardiovascular-related deaths”

  1. why are you quoting the press release and not examining the study, which will have a discussion section discussing limitations and multiple statistical analyses that show whether or not the results are penetrative enough to be worthy of notice (which, by the way, is what small n sizes are for – suggesting things that should be studied in more depth)? I like that one table from the uncorrected proof is somehow good enough for you to rail against science.

  2. So you have a cluster of astronauts who all went through the same prolonged training, living in the same area, exposed to the same food, same water, and same general (terrestrial) work regimen. Even if the sample size was large enough to make the statistics relevant you cannot point to cosmic radiation. It could have been anything.

    PLUS, we’re talking 40+ years ago. They are implying that activity from 4-5 decades prior have an impact in cardio vascular health. If that’s the case, we can just forget all the dietary and exercise and pharmaceutical interventions in persons above 40 and 50 years old…it’s too late! They at least point out this cohort receives above standard medical outcomes which explains longevity; however, they seem to overlook one inconvenient truth: all persons must die of some cause and the natural ones are almost always a) cardiovascular or b) cancer (for a group living above the mean life expectancy, below that you add in things like diabetes).

    So here we have a study designed such that a cardiovascular result = bad, and I guarantee you if the n=3 result had been cancer they would have blamed the cosmic radiation exposure for that as well. Isn’t this a case where regardless of the numbers you get the same outcome the researchers were seeking to publish?

  3. On of the problems with “name” journals like Nature, Lancet and (perhaps to a lesser extent) Science is they are very much driven by political correctness and even bad papers will get published if in line with the editor biases.

    Remember a few years back a whole slew of papers were published attempting to show Americans were in more danger because of their 2nd amendment rights and how resistance to deadly assault would be ‘bad’ for you. The “studies”, by a small group in the CDC, were crap. The editors wanted to ignore the problems with data, methodology and conclusions until a renowned statistician (who had previously championed government control of firearms) made it a cause to bring these deficiencies to the fore.

    This is now seen a th climate change; so a study showing that the Antarctica ice cap is not shrinking overall still has to have a line in the conclusions explaining away why the measured data doesn’t fit the model.

    Many of the smaller journals have better standards. The page charges for Nature, et al are often so high you think it is a pay to publish scheme. Interestingly the one group that often had no page charges were medical journals.

    There is a group of PC leaders aghast at the thought that mankind might actually step out and look to colonize Mars (how imperialist) or to move farther out into space. This is why such trash papers get published and then ballyhooed in the general press.

  4. This study shows the complete lack of integrity of the journal Nature. Since ‘Nature’ is supposed to be one of the most reputable journals, what are the lower journals, pay to publish open access journals like. I am glad that I did not pursue a career in science.

  5. When I was doing research, I would have been much too embarrassed to have my name associated with an alleged “study” such as this even as a 3rd or 4th author. My question is do these “scientists” really know how stupid–and I use the word advisedly–this published report makes them sound?

  6. Other confounding factor: One of the reasons they have such a small n value for Apollo astronauts is that several of them have not died yet. So while it may be of statistical significance that you are more likely to die of heart disease than cancer at age 82, I think the practical significance is minimal.

  7. So true! Early in my career I had long discussions with one of the best experiment statistician in the country. He really showed me the truth behind the old Mark Twain joke about lies, Damn Lies and statistics.

    Even many of those using the various stat tools fail to use them properly as all have built-in assumptions. Many researchers use the old mean and standard deviation but this is only valid for normal distribution and many cases are not normal distribution. Sample size must be large enough to allow for the variables in the assumption. To “prove” a hypothesis on the n-size available is ludicrous. This is why toxicity/pharmacology studies need such large numbers. When an entire population is sampled then that opens other assumption problems (as statistics is based on random samples). This is why you can’t prove a tiny population with statistical analysis.

    The author then attempts to correlate with earth bound mice studies. The effect of weightlessness is known to have dramatic cardiovascular/osteopathic/cardiomuscular effects and I saw no attempt to control this in the summary. The assignment of fatal cardiovascular disease to radiation above the Van Allen belt when the associated risk of cancer was nil makes these assumptions quite a stretch.

  8. An all-too-common dodge involves using percentages to conceal the pathetically small sample size. 9% of a sample sized 35 is 3 individuals. Only a fool would try to assign statistical significance to this. Poisson statistics are more relevant there than percentages.

  9. There appears to be so much procedural faults – calling association causality, a n- size that is a joke, ( and for the most task from ionizing radiation- cancer- minimal difference between general population and Apollo astronauts, non- Apollo personnel having a “higher” rate).

    Experimental scientists (as I was) have always laughed at “medical studies” with miniscule population sizes and wild claims of causality. This one certainly qualifies.

    This ‘study’ could make a more valid argument if controlled comparison was made with similar flight experience persons (these were all military/test pilots) as to flight hours, combat stress, high altitude exposure of same age cohort. The exposure to space variables between the Apollo CAPSULE and shuttle AIRCRAFT also would need control.

    These studies are fine for ‘World Wide News’ but not serious scholarship.

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