Ions of high atomic number and energy (HZE particles) pose a significant cancer risk to astronauts on prolonged space missions. On Earth, similar ions are being used for targeted cancer therapy. The properties of these particles can be drastically altered during passage through spacecraft shielding, therapy beam modulators, or the human body. Here, we have used pertinent responses to DNA double-strand breaks (DSBs) to understand the consequences of energy loss versus nuclear fragmentation of Fe ions during passage through shielding or tissue-equivalent materials. Phosphorylation of histone H2AX and recruitment of 53BP1 were used to generate 3D reconstructions of DNA damage in human cells and to follow its repair. Human cells are unable to repair a significant portion of DNA damage induced by Fe ions. DNA-PK and ATM are required, to different extents, for the partial repair of Fe-induced DNA damage. Aluminum shielding has little effect on DNA damage or its repair, confirming that the hulls of the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station afford scant protection against these particles. Lead shielding, on the other hand, exacerbates the effects of Fe ions due to energy loss during particle traversal. In sharp contrast, polyethylene (PE), a favored hydrogenous shield, results in DNA damage that is more amenable to repair presumably due to Fe-ion fragmentation. Human cells are indeed able to efficiently repair DSBs induced by chlorine ions and protons that represent fragmentation products of Fe. Interestingly, activation of the tumor suppressor p53 in Fe-irradiated cells is uniquely biphasic and culminates in the induction of high levels of p21 (Waf1/Cip1), p16 (INK4a) and senescence-associated beta-galactosidase activity. Surprisingly, these events occur even in the absence of ATM kinase implying that ATR may be a major responder to the complex DNA damage inflicted by Fe ions. Significantly, fragmentation of the Fe beam through PE attenuates these responses and this, in turn, results in better long-term survival in a colony-forming assay. Our results help us to understand the biological consequences of ion fragmentation through materials, whether in space or in the clinic, and provide us with a biological basis for the use of hydrogenous materials like PE as effective space shields.