It isn't yet clear when humans will finally begin spending multiple years (perhaps even decades) in space while constructing space stations, Mars habitats, offworld rovers, and probably a slew of other stunning things I can barely fathom from my cozy Earth couch. What is clear, however, is that our current trajectory suggests such a time will certainly arrive.
Every day, scientists are working hard to make sure we reach the point when our species becomes interplanetary — the era during which we will literally "be" the aliens while exploring the Red Planet or floating alongside Jovian gravity. There's lots to consider. Engineers will need to develop next-generation rockets that can propel astronauts across massive distances in a reasonable time frame. Mission planners will need to learn where on a planet or moon's surface an extraterrestrial society could thrive. Ethicists will need to consider how laws and moral codes would work beyond Earth. Policymakers will need to worry about funding these efforts. Physicists will need to consider how to insert capsules into the orbits of other worlds — orbits they're still just getting hang of.
But arguably, I'd say the greatest onus will fall on medical experts.
octors, researchers, surgeons, physical therapists and even psychiatrists will need to figure out what'll happen to the bodies of those brave future humans headed to the embrace of space. Astronauts are Earthlings after all; they're built to live on Earth. In microgravity, in hypergravity, on atmosphere-less worlds and on fast-moving vessels, their bodies will weaken. Their homeostasis will be interrupted. In isolation, their minds will be tested. And they should be prepared for that.
So, without further ado, here are some 2023 progress reports on the burgeoning field of space medicine.
For some time now, scientists have toyed with the idea of having astronauts tap into the sort of "hibernation" practices we see animals take part in during the winter. Think, bears.
I mean, it'd take six to nine months for current technology to bring humans to Mars, for instance, which means anyone headed to the Red Planet would need to bring six to nine months of supplies to stay afloat during the journey. And that's just one way. This would cost quite a bit of money, yes, but moreover, living in microgravity for so long would be pretty taxing on the human body. Such an environment leads to substantial bone and muscle loss; astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) have regimented exercises to combat those effects for even their short-duration trips. Who's to say what a very long excursion, of years or decades, would do to the human body.
So, like bears hibernate to conserve energy and pass time when resources are limited due to snowy weather, scientists think there's a way to have astronauts hibernate on the way to Mars. If animals can simply bounce back to their daily routines after months of hibernation, perhaps humans will be able to, too. Hibernation is different than just being in a coma; bedridden patients don't wake up as springy as post-hibernation bears do.
Toward that end, in January, NASA announced that it's looking into the hibernation methods of arctic squirrels.
At the risk of sounding lame, astronauts' most important tools in space will undoubtedly be their thinking caps. Umm… okay, sorry. But really, the human brain is a delicate, vital organ that kind of depends on gravity to function properly.
Such are the results of a study that came out in June. Scientists had looked into how brains are impacted by spaceflight. The team, in short, found that cavities in the brain known as "ventricles" can enlarge by a whopping 25% depending on how long the organ is exposed to microgravity. Without enough gravity, the brain starts to shift upward in the skull, creating pressure on the ventricles and forcing them to expand.
"The biggest jump comes when you go from two weeks to six months in space," Rachael Seidler, a space health researcher at the University of Florida in Gainesville and the study's senior author, said in a statement.
The brain's ventricles are filled with what's known as cerebrospinal fluid, a substance that fills the entire brain in general and keeps the organ "buoyant and cushioned," as the Mayo Clinic puts it. Though the team still isn't sure what this expansion might mean for long-term space missions, the scientists did find that it'd probably take at least three years for the ventricles to return to normal. But "waiting this long may not be a necessity," Seidler said. It appears that more work needs to be done on this front, but it's a start.
Among the most interesting studies to come out this year concerning the path toward an offworld human presence was one that presented awfully specific conclusions.
To create a functional Mars settlement, scientists found, you'd probably need at least 22 people. And of these 22 people, it's probably best to have as many as possible who possess the "agreeable" personality trait. "The stress caused by accidents, as well as from interacting with other settlers, takes a toll, and agreeable personality types were assessed to be the most enduring for the long term, whereas neurotics showed least adaptation capacity," the team wrote in their study.
Of course, personality "types" are cookie-cutter categories that must be taken with a very large grain of salt. It's more likely that everyone has a bit of every trait to some degree. Thus, these results may be better considered the spine of a book, rather than the pages inside. Still, it's intriguing food for thought that I bet will spur some important discussions, and at the end of the day, it feels very human that we must consider social relationships in our blueprints for space habitation. It also makes me think about how NASA is literally testing how different people's psychologies handle the isolation and tribulations of living on a simulated Mars environment in preparation for the real thing. And, as I've mentioned in many an article before, this just really makes me think about the novel "Red Mars."