Manned, long-term, deep space missions are an exciting prospect, but one that remains in the realm of distant possibilities–particularly because we don’t have all the technological innovations needed to make it happen.
One major consideration is the time it takes to reach the destination. Mars, which is at the top of various space programs’ go-to destinations for manned missions, is about six months if travel time away from Earth. If we wanted to explore even further, keep in mind that New Horizons, the fastest spacecraft to leave Earth, took nine and a half years to reach Pluto.
Science fiction conveniently sidesteps this challenge by putting the space explorers into deep sleep–a state of suspended animation. But slowing the human metabolism down while ensuring that a person will stay alive for extended periods is a lot easier said than done.
Spaceworks however, led by John A. Bradford, is proposing to use a method they refer to as “therapeutic hypothermia.” The process involves cooling the body a little below the normal body temperature (37 C), to slow down heart rate and blood pressure. This process is already being used in the medical world. By bringing the body temperature of patients undergoing treatment for cardiac arrest or traumatic brain injuries down to 32 and 34 degrees Celsius, doctors have more time to address the issues.
The method normally allows patients to stay in stasis for about 2-4 days, but has worked for as long as two weeks. Spaceworks not only believes they can extend this for months, but also that they can create the technology needed to automate the process and apply it for deep-space missions.
Unlike the cryo-chambers depicted in films however, where row upon row of space travelers are left in suspended animation in individual pods, Spaceworks is conceptualizing an open chamber that allows the crew to go into stasis in shifts.
“There would be some robotic arms and monitoring systems taking care of [the passengers]. They’d have small transnasal tubes for the cooling and some warming systems as well, to bring them back from stasis,” Bradford describes an interview with Quartz.
This not only addresses concerns of adding too much weight to a spacecraft, but also ensures that there will be people awake to manage possible emergencies and conduct standard monitoring.
As for the long-term health effects of space travel, Spaceworks is trying to find ways of incorporating exercise into stasis. The team is looking into using electrical stimulation, which is already used to aid physical therapy. Having this technology in place also solves a lot of logistical issues for manned space missions. With crew members awake, you have to factor in the volume of food, water, and air needed to keep them alive for months and years at a time. It could also help manage the psychological impact of long-term space travel and hopefully lower the risk of space crews succumbing to depression, claustrophobia, or anxiety.
According to Spaceworks, they are due to begin animal testing next year, with human testing set to follow after in space and on the International Space Station.