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The only study programme of aerospace medicine: Opportunity for Slovenian companies

One of four semesters of the new international postgraduate study programme examining the physiology and medicine of humans in space and extreme environments will be implemented in Slovenia as part of the SpaceMed Erasmus Mundus Joint Masters. The University of Caen Normandy (France), the Charité – University Medicine Berlin (Germany) and the Jožef Stefan International Postgraduate School (Slovenia) have joined forces in the programme.
group photo in front of the EU, Slovenia and I feel Slovenia flags

prof. dr. Igor Mekjavič, prof. dr. Pierre Denise, Tanja Permozer, Valter Mlekuž, Igor Benko

The project is supported by 40 international partners and the Slovenian part of the programme will take place at the Jožef Stefan Institute.

“The relevant programme presents an opportunity for the Slovenian economy, which can thus obtain young skilled people who will be able to find jobs in the business sector and research institutions,” said Tanja Permozer, Head of the Slovenian Space Office at the Ministry of the Economy, Tourism and Sport. “The postgraduate students will be able to contribute to a speedier technological development and improvement of life in general – particularly from the aspect of health, including the development of various high-tech solutions and devices to be used in other fields as well.”

Programme relevance for the Slovenian economy

The Slovenian Space Office provides support to the rapidly developing space sector in Slovenia. Slovenia is an active associate member of the European Space Agency (ESA) and is striving to become a full member. One of the programmes in which Slovenia is involved is the ESA programme of human and robotic exploration, which Slovenia joined in particular due to the activities of the Jožef Stefan Institute in the field of research simulating the adaptation of physiological systems to weightlessness (bed rest studies). The result was the Short Arm Human Centrifuge in Planica, one of three in the ESA area, which was a joint project of the Ministry of the Economy, Tourism and Sport, the Jožef Stefan Institute and the ESA. France and Germany, the leading countries in the field of space, were also involved in the project. Such collaboration enhances the visibility of Slovenia and its economy, thus opening up new opportunities for economic and technological cooperation.

“The SpaceMed postgraduate programme is an upgrade of the activities in Planica, as it involves international cooperation between three countries that are very important in the field of space. The programme implementation is supported by Slovenian companies because they regard it as a welcome opportunity for the development of new human resources, generally needed in the space and business sectors,” asserted the Head of the Slovenian Space Office at the Ministry of the Economy, Tourism and Sport. Permozer believed that the relevant project was a good example of cooperation between governmental and research institutions and companies, as well as an excellent promotion of Slovenia as a tourist destination. She further highlighted that the knowledge obtained in the programme would not only be beneficial in space, but particularly on Earth.

More than 40 partners became involved in the six-year project, the result of which was a two-year study programme. The partners include universities and institutions from various parts of the world and European companies. “Since the industry showed great interest in the SpaceMed programme, additional Slovenian companies will participate in the programme in the following year,” forecast Prof Dr Igor Mekjavić (Jožef Stefan Institute), Head of the Research Centre in Planica.

The only postgraduate programme focusing on physiology and aerospace medicine

In this century, humans are constantly present in space. The International Space Station hosts astronaut teams from all over the world, who perform scientific, research and development work at the station. The establishment of more permanent bases on the Moon can be expected in the continuation of this century. This will be the launching pad for further space research, particularly subsequent visits to Mars. “The education of staff who will see to the health and wellbeing of space travellers and workers is crucial,” clarified the project lead, Prof Dr Pierre Denise of the University of Caen-Normandy. This fact motivated the establishment of the international Erasmus Mundus Joint Masters. The SpaceMed programme on the physiology and medicine of humans in space and extreme environments is primarily intended for students of biomedical sciences from around the world.

As part of the two-year SpaceMed study, it is expected that at least 25 students will spend at least one four-month semester in Slovenia every year. Various scientists researching life sciences, psychologists, medical practitioners, biomedical engineers and others will participate in the programme, explained Prof Dr Denise. He further emphasised that no programme had previously existed that focussed on the physiology and medicine of humans in space or extreme environments.

The purpose of the programme is to educate future researchers, medical practitioners and scientists who will participate in the preparation and health control of space travel. The programme is further intended to educate engineers who will design, optimise, manage and assess support systems for life in space (and on Earth). The Erasmus Mundus Joint Masters will enable students to engage in international cooperation, networking, multicultural understanding and use of foreign languages.

Study programme implementation

The institutions implementing the SpaceMed programme will obtain funds in the amount of EUR 750 a month per student. Some 100 grants for the best students will also be available, specifically in the amount of EUR 1,400 a month per student. The programme will last four semesters. It is anticipated that the first semester will take place in Caen, the second one in Berlin, the third one in Ljubljana and in the fourth one, the students will be drafting their master theses and conduct research independently.

“The Slovenian part of the educational programme will be the continuation of the programme implemented in France and Germany. It will focus on practical and field exercises,” explained Prof Dr Igor Mekjavić, who is also responsible for the transfer of the Short Arm Human Centrifuge to Slovenia, which made Planica one of the ESA’s development centres. “At the Planica lab of the Jožef Stefan Institute, the students will learn about the effects of weightlessness and research how artificial gravity could prevent negative effects of weightlessness on humans. Since future spacecraft and habitats on the Moon and Mars will likely be hypoxic, field exercises will be carried out in cooperation with the Speleological Association of Slovenia and the Alpine Association of Slovenia in Peter Skalar Lodge on Mt Kanin. The base for this part of the educational programme will be in Bovec,” said Prof Dr Mekjavić. European astronauts have been visiting Slovenian caves for several years now within the framework of preparations for future space missions. The preparations are carried out in karst caves where the conditions are somewhat similar to those on the Moon and Mars.

On that note, Valter Mlekuž, the Mayor of the Municipality of Bovec, said, “I’m proud to be able to participate in the project. Due to its altitude, windy conditions and low temperatures, Peter Skalar Lodge on Mt Kanin can provide unique possibilities for testing extreme conditions. I would also like to commend the cooperation with the Speleological Association of Slovenia and other institutions. Furthermore, this is a very nice opportunity for the promotion of Bovec and its high mountains, which complies with my efforts to do as much as possible for the benefit of my municipality.”

Igor Benko, President of the Speleological Association of Slovenia, stated that good cooperation had been forged between the ESA and the Speleological Association of Slovenia, and added, “We look forward to the knowledge transfer of caving skills to university students. The acquisition of the relevant project denotes an international recognition of the quality of caving in Slovenia. The high-mountain Peter Skalar Lodge could be used for other specialised purposes with regard to functioning in the extreme conditions to which it is exposed, for example, other rescue units.”

The SpaceMed programme will not only focus on the problems encountered by astronauts in space, but part of the programme will include the effect of extreme conditions on humans on Earth as well. One of the main themes will be global warming or heat waves. On this note, it should be underlined that research performed within the SpaceMed programme will also be beneficial for people living on Earth. The ESA’s slogan supporting such research states “Life in Space for Life on Earth.”

The last part of the Slovenian programme will include a workshop regarding cooperation between humans and robots. An increasing number of tasks in industry, healthcare and elsewhere is done by robots. One of the key questions in robotics is how can robots help people in their everyday tasks on Earth and on the expeditions to the Moon and Mars.  

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