Abstract Detrimental environmental factors – namely ionizing radiation – will continue to affect future manned space missions. The Cellular Biodiagnostics group at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) develops cellular monitoring systems, which include bacterial and mammalian cell systems capable of responding to DNA damage as a consequence of the presence of genotoxic conditions. Such bioassays will complement the physical detector systems used in space, insofar as they yield intrinsically biologically weighted measures of cellular responses. Furthermore, synergistic toxic impacts of the radiation environment together with other potentially genotoxic constituents of the space habitat can be quantified using such systems. The biological end-point under investigation in this work is the gene activation by radiation in mammalian cells, based on fluorescent promoter reporter systems using the destabilized enhanced green fluorescent protein variant (d2EGFP). The promoter element to be investigated reflects the activity of the nuclear factor κB (NF-κB) pathway. The NF-κB family of proteins plays a major role in the inflammatory and immune response, cell proliferation and differentiation, apoptosis and tumorigenesis. After exposure to X-rays, an increase in NF-κB activation was seen only with high doses. Experiments using accelerated argon ions (95 MeV/u, LET ∼230 keV/μm) produced at the French heavy ion accelerator GANIL have shown activation of the NF-κB pathway with doses greater than 1 × 10 6 particles cm −2 (P cm −2), reaching its maximal activation at 2 × 10 7 P cm −2. These results suggest that the exceptional radiation field in space may activate the NF-κB pathway in human cells.