If we followed EVERYONE’s conservative advice for radiation risk, we’d be asking astronauts to fly in a giant sphere of polyethylene with no windows, hardly any room, and no EVAs ever (no “one small step” moment because of the risk of radiation, let alone a colony). We certainly wouldn’t be flying to ISS as we are now.
That aside, we can look at what IS a reasonably feasible and low-mass approach to dealing with radiation. Instead of the usual water or polyethylene or regolith shielding or magnetic shielding, I will look at a somewhat over-looked option: biological countermeasures. Radiation is, of course, often used to treat cancer. As such, there is a sizable body of work and several possible treatments that limit the toxicity of radiation to normal (non-cancerous) cells (thus allowing a higher dose to be used against cancerous cells, which are protected less). The most studied drug is, I believe, Amifostine. “Amifostine is the only approved radioprotective agent by FDA for reducing the damaging effects of radiation on healthy tissues.” (Cakmak et al)
While most such studies look at the ability of Amifostine to protect healthy cells from cell death and other damaging effects of radiation (such as damage that may lead to neurodegeneration), which seems to be effective (according to Cakmak and friends), what is most relevant to us in this discussion is the effect on a specific type of radiation-induced toxicity: carcinogenesis. People have suggested that stopping cell death may actually increase tumor-related toxicity (I see their argument, but it is much more likely that, due to Amifostine’s free radical scavenging, the total damage to the DNA is reduced) but is that actually true? No. No it’s not:
Amifostine protected against specific non-tumor pathological complications (67% of the non-tumor toxicities induced by gamma irradiation, 31% of the neutron induced specific toxicities), as well as specific tumors (56% of the tumor toxicities induced by gamma irradiation, 25% of the neutron induced tumors). Amifostine also reduced the total number of toxicities per animal for both genders in the gamma ray exposed mice and in males in the neutron exposed mice.
(note: neutrons have a high quality factor, sort of like GCRs)
However, there is the argument that long-term use of a radioprotectant is not very effective, since it could reduce the body’s natural defense mechanisms.
As an aside, these very natural defense mechanisms are exactly why I think the threat posed by long-term chronic low doses of radiation is actually quite low… The body adapts to the constant radiation by increasing its natural repair/scavenging mechanisms… But with a short, very large acute dose, the body does not have time to adapt and its repair mechanisms are over-whelmed. It is these large acute doses that the general risk of cancer is actually based off. I find that extrapolating down from acute doses is incredibly unrealistic (on the ultra-pessimistic side). Aside over.
So, it may be that Amifostine and similar drugs are really most effective against acute doses of radiation. You might want to inject a little Amifostine when you learn a flare is on its way (once you get inside your radiation shelter). BUT I am not entirely convinced that there’s no benefit at all to Amifostine for chronic low-dose radiation. Even so, this whole field has tremendous potential. Imagine, you can potentially reduce the tumor toxicity of a really bad solar flare event by 25% with just a few grams of extra mass! And that’s on top of the benefit you might get from shielding and fast transit. One a per-mass basis, biological countermeasures are essentially unbeatable. This is why I think that if we’re going to spend any resources on solving the radiation problem, it probably should be to maximize whatever benefit we can get from drugs like Amifostine and, say, finding out if we can maximize our bodies’ built-in repair mechanisms through, say, targeted gene therapy. There are examples of extreme radiation tolerance and gene repair in nature that put even some rad-hard electronics to shame, so the ultimate potential (on the physics side) of biological countermeasures is pretty high as well. Biology may be a lot messier and frustratingly complex, but the potential gains make this path toward radiation mitigation worth it. Once developed, a drug or treatment would be very cheap, while shielding your transit craft with tens of tons of polyethylene or something will always be fairly expensive (even with space mining) or at least cumbersome.