If you weren’t paying attention, NASA has been recruiting astronauts for a one-way trip to colonize Mars. No kidding. Sadly, they passed on hiring a middle-aged redhead (ahem) for the job. Their loss.
Anyway, the question arises about just how the hell they are going to get people there without them going batshiat crazy on the trip. The voyage should begin in the next 15 years or so, so the selected crew starts training now for the arduous trip.
The Red Planet has been a dream for humanity for years. We’ve made giant leaps in technology and the requirements for space travel, so the colonization project may now be possible. NASA and project researchers are shooting for launch in or near 2030. In spite of how far away that seems, it really is not.
NASA-funded engineers are working on ways to put the astronauts into hibernation during the trip. No, this is not an Arthur C. Clarke novel, this is real life. Hibernation would make the Mars trip cheaper, safer, and easier on the crews, according to researchers. The plan is to induce a state similar to how bears snooze through a long winter.
Using current propulsion technology, it will take six to nine months to reach Mars. Happy and healthy awake astronauts will consume huge amounts of food, water, and living space. Happy hibernating astronauts, by comparison, would let the spacecraft travel lighter and leaner, with more resources devoted to other capacities. Less mass assigned to consumables reduces the cost of the entire system.
Life support systems would not have to work as hard and hibernating voyagers would be confined to one area of the ship. Radiation shielding would be hardened over that area, so no new propulsion systems to minimize radiation doses is be needed. More astronauts could go on the colonization expedition if they are hibernating. Having more people along will make the process after planet-fall much more efficient and productive.
Just how are these brainiacs planning to chill out the astronauts? The research team is using advances in therapeutic hypothermia developed for head and spinal cord injuries, for one. With this, tissue damage is prevented during low blood flow times by lowering the body’s core temperature.
Researchers claim the metabolic rate decreases by five to seven percent for every one-degree Fahrenheit drop in body temperature. Researchers are aiming for ten degrees drop in core body temperature during the voyage, which factors to a 50 to 70 percent reduction in metabolism.
This is a far cry from freezing someone and thawing them out when they get to the end of the trip. Astronauts will still need air, and will get nutrients via IVs. Supposedly, the body temperature drop would induce unconsciousness by itself; otherwise, sedatives would need to be added to the IV feed.
Maybe adding middle-aged redheads to the voyage would require ice cream and lots of Xanax in the drip. I am beginning to see their point. However, I would want to be awake for part of the voyage just to occasionally revel in the awesomeness.
Back to hypothermia. The research team is trying to figure out the best way to drop core temperature. Right now, the leading idea is using the gel pads doctors currently use. Cold IVs could also do the trick, but they are trying to avoid multiple needles, it seems.
They could also let the spacecraft cool down naturally in the cold vacuum of space, and then warm the place back up as the destination neared. I have visions of astronaut-shaped Pop Tarts, but that is probably wrong. So far, the longest hypothermic hibernation has been ten days for humans. That has been dictated by medical need rather than human tolerances.
Challenges for hibernating spacefarers would include bone loss and muscle degeneration from lack of gravity and lack of exercise. Space station astronauts have a gym set up, and must work hard on gravity-based exercises to keep up their strength. Unresponsive and immobile hibernators would have no such advantage.
However, one study is examining the practicalities of spinning the spacecraft to induce artificial gravity. They could spin the ship faster with sleeping astronauts, because motion sickness would not be an issue. Faster spinning equals more gravity, and thus less bone and muscle loss. Scientists are also looking at how bears, in hibernation for five to seven months, don’t lose muscle strength.
Thankfully, research teams are also looking at things that would make hibernation impractical or impossible on the long trip to Mars. If they don’t find any deal-breakers, then they will move on to more in-depth research. The 2030s are creeping up faster every day. Engineers say the hypothermia experiments can begin on the International Space Station at any time.