In July of 1969, as the Apollo 11 astronauts were preparing to embark on their journey to the moon, the Nixon Administration was also making preparations for a worst-case scenario. They drafted remarks in case the mission turned out to be deadly, which was a distinct possibility at the time. Although not widely publicized until 1999, Nixon’s prepared statement was grim and thanked the astronauts for their bravery and sacrifice.
A clergyman would have been present to adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea, commending the astronauts’ souls to “the depths of the deep” and concluding with the Lord’s Prayer. Fortunately, the mission was a resounding success, but as we look ahead to future human travel to other planets, such as Mars, a similar scenario may need to be considered.
The fourth planet in our solar system, Mars, poses even greater challenges and dangers than the moon, with a much longer and riskier journey. The risks include changes in gravity, exposure to intense radiation, and the impact of living on the human body. To date, no human has ever attempted such a journey, leaving many unknown variables.
We do know that trips to the moon and long periods in space, such as those experienced by the crew on the International Space Station, have already caused profound alterations to the human body. Microgravity can trigger muscle atrophy and loss of bone density, while pressure differences between the brain and eye can cause visual impairments. Ionizing radiation, which is everywhere away from the Earth’s electromagnetic field, can cause cancer, bleeding gums, hair loss, brain damage, and reduced immunity.
Astronauts on the International Space Station are at least partially shielded from radiation when the Earth is blocking it, but astronauts headed to Mars would have no such protection during their seven-month journey to the red planet. A review of the carcinogenic effects of space published in the journal Neoplasia noted many “unsolved mysteries” surrounding our understanding of space radiation and tumor growth, yet the pace of human space exploration is rapidly increasing.
Dr. Kevin Fong, an anesthesiologist based in London who has worked with NASA’s Human Adaptation and Countermeasures Office, believes that space exploration and bodily health are deeply interconnected. He states, “The same exploration that takes us out across the world in the 20th century, and then out across the stars, is the same exploration that takes us inward to explore the human body. It’s just different parts, different disciplines.”
Fong goes into detail about the impact of life on Mars on the human body in his book “Extreme Medicine: How Exploration Transformed Medicine in the Twentieth Century.” He explains that there are two main aspects to consider: the journey to Mars and the stay on the planet itself.
Weightlessness may sound fun, but our bodies have evolved over millions of years in response to Earth’s gravitational pull. Separating ourselves from that pull can have intense effects on our physiology and the way our body’s systems are organized, from digestion to cognition. Fong explains, “When you’re moving between two celestial objects, you’re falling between them. It leaves your physiology to make adaptations, which can later cause you problems.”
The effects of weightlessness include bone and muscle wasting, heart deconditioning, problems with balance and coordination, and changes in the hematopoietic system, which is responsible for blood formation, immunity, and other functions. A one-way journey to Mars would last between seven and nine months, with double that travel time needed to actually return, and there are many unknowns about what may happen to a human in the void of space.
Although landing on Mars would be a safer place than the vacuum of space
, it would still pose its own challenges. Mars is a cold and inhospitable environment, with thin air, extreme temperature fluctuations, and dangerous dust storms. The planet’s low air pressure and the harsh radiation environment would make it difficult to live and work on the surface, and it’s still unknown what effects long-term exposure to these conditions would have on the human body.
Another challenge is the psychological impact of being confined in a small space with limited human interaction. A study published in the journal of Aviat Space Environ Med found that isolation, confinement, and lack of privacy can have a significant impact on mood and behavior, leading to sleep disturbances, depression, and anxiety.
To mitigate these risks, NASA has developed various technologies to protect astronauts, such as radiation shielding, advanced medical equipment, and systems for water and air recycling. They also have various mission plans and protocols in place to minimize the amount of time astronauts spend on the planet’s surface and to ensure that they have access to necessary resources and support during their journey.
Despite the many challenges and risks, the potential benefits of human exploration of Mars are significant. Not only will it deepen our understanding of the planet and the potential for life beyond Earth, but it will also drive technological innovations and advancements in areas such as medicine, engineering, and materials science.
In conclusion, as we continue to push the boundaries of space exploration and travel to other planets, we must remain vigilant and prepared for the challenges that come with such ambitious endeavors. Whether it’s the physical and physiological effects of space travel and living in a new environment, or the psychological and emotional impact of isolation, we must ensure that our astronauts are equipped and protected, and that we are prepared to support them throughout their journey.