As eager as Earthlings are to touch down on the Red Planet and even someday become Martians, NASA is more eager to find out if our bodies can actually take it.
Through its NSPIRES site, the space agency is now seeking new research that could give us deeper insight into the effects of extended space travel when we boldly go beyond low-Earth orbit. NASA wants to literally and otherwise take a microscope to the five aspects of space travel that could potentially take us down.
Killer space radiation, long and psychologically brutal stretches of isolation and confinement, closed and potentially hostile environments, microgravity and just existing tens of millions of miles from Earth could be the demise of astronauts (and future Martian settlers) if science does not figure out technologies and countermeasures to confront these issues head-on.
“To draw any conclusions about the cumulative effects of exposure to space, we need to observe more astronauts spending larger amounts of time in the space environment,” said NASA’s Human Research Program associate director for Exploration Research Planning John Charles, Ph.D. “Scientists can use the information to predict physical and behavioral health trends.”
The Human Research Program is obsessed with what your body and mind undergo in space. When astronauts Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko took off on the NASA One-Year Mission in a collaboration between NASA and Russian space agency Roscosmos, NASA was anxious to investigate the physical and psychological effects of almost 365 days on the International Space Station after they landed. Strangely enough, the performance and recovery results for two humans who spent the same amount of time floating around outside our planet’s atmosphere were almost as far away from one another as both of them had been from Earth.
Preflight training and experience were thought to factor into that drastic difference the most. More space station studies, as well additional research from analogs here on terra firma, will give NASA a more comprehensive idea of how human bodies handle space in behavioral, biomedical and performance (think motor skills) terms. Astronauts are probably going to require an intense focus on training that engages with Earth’s gravitational field if they want to have any prospect of being the first boots on Mars.
What NASA unearths in its space health studies will be valuable to the long-term missions planned to the moon and certain asteroids as the space agency keeps flying closer and closer to its red, dusty destination. New findings could also influence mission prep on Earth. What can be learned about team problem-solving skills could be applied to the entire crew as well as those working ops and mission control.
NASA will emerge from a selection process that may or may not involve multiple headaches before choosing 15 to 18 finalists whose proposals will receive grants to continue research for up to seven years. For now, those of us who aren’t astronauts are probably better off not planning a Mars vacation anytime soon.