If your heart is set on becoming one of the first humans on Mars you’d better get your application in soon to Mars One—they’re the ones who plan a one-way mission to the Red Planet in 2023, funded by a reality TV show, and with further colonists to follow every couple of years. The deadline to apply is Saturday August 31st. Mind you, more than 165,000 people have applied, so good luck with that.
NASA and the U.S. government have talked about a Mars mission for sometime after 2030 but such a trip will definitely have its challenges. Some researchers funded by NASA think a lot of the problems might be solved by putting the crew into hibernation. (Just think—six months of catching up on sleep!) The idea of hibernating astronauts is certainly not new—it was big in the 60’s in everything from Lost In Space and Star Trek on TV (look for the original episode “Space Seed” that inspired the later movie The Wrath of Khan and the latest ST movie Into Darkness) to the movies 2001: A Space Odyssey and its much later sequel 2010. They used to call it “suspended animation” (more impressively technical, don’t you know). If you’ve seen any of the Alien movies, you’ve seen it there, too. However, the recent research doesn’t propose to freeze the astronauts, just lower their body temperature and considerably reduce their bodies’ needs for energy and oxygen.
When we think of hibernation we probably think of black bears—for five long winter months or more their body burns only enough stored fat to keep their core temperature above a minimum level, and even their urine is recycled to prevent dehydration. Lots of other animals enter into hibernation or similar dormant states, but is it possible for humans? The knowledge we have on the subject mainly comes from accidents. In 2012 a man in Sweden survived nearly two months in his car, buried in snow. Many other low-temperature survival stories seem to show that, if done right, humans might come through long periods in a dormant state without harm.
The advantages for space travel? Lots. There would be much less need for food, water, and space to move around—you might be able to send a crew of twenty instead of six. Psychologically, it would be far more pleasant for the crew to be unconscious than having to occupy themselves and get along together for months in a tin can millions of miles from home. One of the biggest hazards—solar radiation—would be easier to shield against if the crew weren’t moving around. Of course, there are many problems to solve, like how to create and maintain the hibernation state (just let the deep freeze of space do it’s work? Brrrr). There also needs to be a way to prevent the loss of muscle and bone mass that astronauts currently combat with rigid exercise regimens. Maybe something like electro-stimulation of the muscles could do the trick. I’m sure bodies would also need to be turned regularly to prevent bed sores.
My thoughts? I’d love to see other planets (but a two-way trip, thank you very much) so I might be willing to undergo suspended animation under three conditions:
1) The computer programmed to wake me up is not named HAL 9000.
2) They can arrange to fill my dreams with visions of Rio de Janeiro beaches.
3) My fellow astronaut looks like Sigourney Weaver.