To Infinity and Beyond…or at least to Mars and back

moon

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I was eight years old when man first stepped on the moon.  Space was the new frontier.   It was every boy’s dream to become an astronaut.  Everyone looked to space for the next adventure with more moon landings and a manned space station in orbit through the next decade.

star trek

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The television series Star Trek aired around the same time frame which fueled our imaginations even more. Many TV shows came along mixed with several movies about space travel, the most significant being Star Wars.  Unfortunately the general public focused more on Hollywood’s version of space rather than the science version.

The last man walked on the moon more than 40 years ago.  Since then, manned space exploration has consisted of low earth orbit missions with the space shuttle and the international space station.  Lack of public interest along with budget cuts have kept men from going back to the moon, but Mars has revived a new interest in space exploration.

mars-test

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200,000 people registered for four spots in a privately funded mission to Mars.

Some have said that we’ve had the technology to get to Mars since the1980s.  While I do think it’s sad that the interest in interplanetary travel is taken this long to come back, I’m not sure that the technology needs have been resolved.  It took only 3 days to get to the moon; a trip to Mars will take six to nine months.

While I’m not completely sure about the technology, I do know we don’t have the physiology to go to Mars.  The human body is not designed for space exploration.  The human body is “fearfully and wonderfully made” to operate in an environment of gravity and atmospheric pressure. In the weightless vacuum of space, humans run into trouble.

There are complex physiological changes that occur when humans live in a weightless environment, all body systems are affected to some degree.

Most people are aware that bones tend to lose minerals and muscles lose strength in space.  That means after the extended space flight to Mars, our muscles would be so weak we couldn’t even hold our bodies upright.

And if we could manage to climb out of the space capsule, our bones would break when we try to step onto the surface of Mars. “…one giant leap for mankind…aaaaugh!”

And by the way, our calls for help would take from 4 to 24 minutes to reach Earth depending on the orbits of the two planets. So we would tell Houston our legs broke, and wait up to 48 minutes for them to hear and return a response.

Most people don’t think about the weightless shift in body fluids.  Such a simple thing on Earth, our tissue fluids and blood tend to be in the lower part of our body.  With no gravity, the fluid tends to float up toward our head. This makes our body think we have too much fluid and too much blood pressure.  Our body will try to correct this by removing salt and water reducing blood volume by 10%. Our other body systems then have to compensate for the loss of blood function.

 

magnetosphere

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The extreme environment of space affects us in other ways.  On earth, we are surrounded by a magnetic field that protects us from cosmic radiation. That protection goes away the farther from earth we get. The moon astronauts were blasted with a 1000 times more radiation than normal so imagine traveling for months in space.

If you don’t die from radiation poisoning getting to Mars, the cancer caused by the radiation would get you later.

Without major innovations in spacecraft design, any trip to Mars is, at worst, impossible, and at best, a one-way trip. Even the privately funded mission has no intention of returning.  Oh, and about the 1980s technology thing, only 42% of the spacecraft sent to Mars have made it there successfully, about 30 crashes out of 50 attempts. And those were small ships with light, non-living cargo, not food and oxygen and equipment for humans to survive for a 2 year round trip.

While it is fine to dream big, when it comes to Mars, our minds have written a check that our bodies cannot cash…

dsb

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David Brooks

Associate Professor of Biology & Nursing at East Texas Baptist University

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