Sending a Mars astronaut suffering a medical emergency back to Earth would be effectively impossible — so future space travelers may have to conduct lifesaving surgical procedures in the near-zero gravity environment of space.
That could be a messy — and potentially dangerous — endeavor, as Nina Louise Purvis, postgraduate researcher in space medicine at King’s College London, writes in a new piece for The Conversation.
We already know that space isn’t kind on the human body. From dangerous levels of solar radiation to weakening bones and muscles, even a common cold could end up making space travelers’ lives miserable.
Stack the need of a surgical procedure on top of that and you’re looking at a messy operating room. During zero gravity tests on animals — there’s never been surgery on a human in space — scientists had to deal with some troublesome working conditions.
“One problem was that, during open surgery, the intestines would float around, obscuring view of the surgical field,” Purvis wrote. “To deal with this, space travelers should opt for minimally invasive surgical techniques, such as keyhole surgery, ideally occurring within patients’ internal cavities through small incisions using a camera and instruments.”
Scientists have already tested laparoscopic surgery techniques like this in near-zero gravity environments. They worry, though, that astronauts might not be able to get over the horrors of performing the grisly surgeries on crew mates.
Intestines aside, blood droplets would end up airborne, a risk not only to the surgeon’s view, but increasing the risk of infection as well. According to Purvis, scientists are trying to tackle the issue with closed-surgery bubbles with a separate air supply inside spacecraft and blood-repelling surgical tools.
These tools could also end up being manufactured in space using 3D printers, rather than schlepping them all the way from Earth.
Another sci-fi option would be to have robots perform surgeries in space on our behalf — a practice that has already seen moderate amounts of success back on Earth.
There’s a lot we still don’t know about what the realities of emergencies during missions to Mars would entail. The best option: perform as few surgeries in space as possible.
READ MORE: From floating guts to ‘sticky’ blood – here’s how to do surgery in space [The Conversation]
More on space surgery: Here’s Why NASA Wants to 3D Print Human Hearts in Space