Space is a dangerous, unfriendly place. Isolated from family and friends, exposed to radiation that could increase your lifetime risk for cancer, a diet high in freeze-dried food, required daily exercise to keep your muscles and bones from deteriorating, a carefully scripted high-tempo work schedule, and confinement with three co-workers picked to travel with you by your boss.
There are several risks NASA is researching for a Mars mission. The risks are grouped into five categories related to the stresses they place on the space traveler: Gravity fields, isolation/confinement, hostile/closed environments, space radiation, and distance from Earth.
1. Gravity Fields
Gravity Fields. There are three gravity fields you would experience on a Mars mission. On the six-month trek between the planets, you would be weightless. On the surface of Mars, you would live and work in approximately one-third of Earth’s gravity, and when you return home you will have to readapt to the gravity we take for granted. Transitioning from one gravity field to another is trickier than it sounds. It affects your spatial orientation, head-eye and hand-eye coordination, balance, locomotion, and you’re likely to experience motion sickness.
The Key: By analyzing how your body changes in weightlessness and after returning to Earth’s gravity, protection against these changes for a Mars mission can be developed. Functional task testing is in place to help detect and minimize the effects of space on your balance and performance.
Isolation/Confinement. NASA has learned that behavioral issues among groups of people crammed in a small space over a long time, no matter how well trained they are, are inevitable. Expedition crews selected for a stay aboard the space station are carefully chosen, trained, and supported to make sure they can work effectively as a team for six months.
Crews for a Mars mission will undergo even more scrutiny and preparation, since they will travel farther and longer than any previous human, being more isolated and confined than we can imagine. The types of problems you may encounter are a decline in mood, cognition, morale, or interpersonal interaction. You could also develop a sleep disorder because your circadian rhythm might be thrown off due to the 38 extra minutes each day on Mars, or by a small, noisy environment, or the stress of prolonged isolation and confinement. Depression could occur.
The Key: NASA has been studying people in isolated and confined environments for years, and has developed methods and technologies to counteract possible problems. They are using clever devices like actigraphy that help you to assess and improve your sleep and alertness by recording how much you move and how much ambient light is around you.
3. Hostile/Closed Environments
Hostile/Closed Environments. NASA has learned that the ecosystem inside the spacecraft plays a big role in everyday astronaut life. Microbes can change characteristics in space, and microorganisms that naturally live on your body are transferred more easily from person to person in closed habitats like the space station. Your stress hormone levels are elevated and your immune system is altered, which could lead to increased susceptibility to allergies or other illnesses, and disease. Every inch and detail of your living and working quarters must be carefully thought-out and designed.
The Key: NASA is using technology to monitor the air quality of the space station to ensure the atmosphere is safe to breathe and not contaminated with gases like formaldehyde, ammonia, and carbon monoxide. Your urine and blood samples are analyzed to ensure the stress of space flight hasn’t caused infectious illnesses like the Epstein-Barr virus to be reactivated.
4. Space Radiation
Space Radiation. The most dangerous aspect of traveling to Mars is space radiation. On the space station, astronauts receive over ten times the radiation than what’s naturally occurring on Earth. Our planet’s magnetic field and atmosphere protect us from harsh cosmic radiation, but without that, you are more exposed to the treacherous radiation.
Above Earth’s protective shielding, radiation exposure may increase your cancer risk. It can damage your central nervous system, with both acute effects and later consequences, manifesting itself as altered cognitive function, reduced motor function, and behavioral changes. Space radiation can also cause radiation sickness that results in nausea, vomiting, anorexia, and fatigue. You could develop degenerative tissue diseases such as cataracts, cardiac, and circulatory diseases.
The Key: Shielding, monitoring, and operational procedures control the radiation risks to acceptable levels to keep you safe. To learn what happens above low Earth orbit, NASA has extensively used ground research facilities to study how radiation affects biological systems, and more importantly, how to protect them. They are developing unique ways to monitor and measure how radiation affects you while living in space, and to identify biological countermeasures.
5. Distance from Earth
Distance from Earth. Planning and self-sufficiency are key. How far away is Mars? 140 million miles from Earth on average. In contrast the moon is only 0.239 million miles away. With a communication delay of up to twenty minutes one-way while on Mars and the possibility of equipment failures, you must be able to complete the mission on your own.
The Key: NASA is using the space station to figure out what types of medical events happen in space over six months and what types of skills, procedures, equipment, and medication are needed, so you will have a good idea of what you’ll need to pack for Mars. You can produce Intravenous (IV) solution from purified space station cabin water, and then mix it with salt crystals to produce normal saline for medical administration.
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