This week Mars Rising, the groundbreaking Discovery Channel/Science Channel documentary about making a manned mission to our nearest planetary neighbor Mars takes a look at some of the problems the astronauts will face just staying alive during the six month journey there, and the six month journey back.
The challenges are huge. While weightlessness may seem like a lot of fun, and I am sure everyone has seen video from either the Shuttle or the International Space Station, people effortlessly moving around. Actually being weightless for any period of time poses some very serious health risks. Muscles atrophy and bone mass is diminished. The alarming factor is how quickly the changes can occur. Retired NASA astronaut Jerry Linenger knows this all too well, he spent 5 months on the Russian MIR space station. During that time his muscles atrophied 65%, before the trip he was able to lift 45 kilo’s above his head, and on his return only 16 kilo’s. Bone mass is also an issue in space, it is calculated that after a trip to mars the 45 year old explorer would have the bones of a 90 year old, brittle and susceptible to snapping like a twig. One solution offered is to create a spacecraft with artificial gravity, and Staying Alive explores the avenues that are being explored.
Another problem the crew is going to face is cosmic radiation. On earth me are blanketed by our atmosphere, most of the radiation is deflected, in space that is not the case. One solution would be to lead line the craft, but that is not practical, it would add too much weight. Other solutions must be found, researchers are working on several different ideas, from using new composite materials that can stop the radiation, to the Star Wars idea of creating a force field or invisible shield around the craft. While this may sound fanciful, great strides are being made to bring this to reality.
There are other health issues as well, even though our space travelers today are carefully screened for even the shortest trip in the shuttle occasionally one gets a cold or even the flu. The duration of this expedition is two and a half years, and there will be six crew members. That makes for 15 man years without access to professional medical help. And a lot can happen in 15 years. The press has often covered stories of people in remote places being treated remotely either by phone or video link, unfortunately the journey to Mars makes this a less than desirable option, there will be an up to 20 minute lag in communications. Even the simplest medical procedure becomes a test of endurance.
This is a great series, Mars Rising should be on everyones list of ‘must see’ programs. Episode 3 Staying Alive airs on the Science Channel on Tuesday November/13 at 9pm.