EARTH, HOME. Ever since humanity could travel, we have found ways to overcome the numerous problems that are part of planning and making the journey, then surviving and adapting to the new environment at the journey’s end. We have traveled across the lands from the far eastern parts of Asia to those of Europe, as well as across the seas from the Old World to the mysteries of the New World. Still, us humans have always looked up at the sky from the times of ancient man to today and pondered to ourselves, “What lies there, above the heavens and away from Earth? How can I get there?” While we successfully sent humanity into the orbits of space, and even to the moon, our craving for the exploration of the unknown sends us on a new task—and that is to land on Mars. We not only need to get there, but also ensure we survive once we have landed; additionally, we must develop novel and efficient devices for us to thrive in an environment to which we are not accustomed. In order to make leaps in aerospace research, we must first find the means to stay in space for longer—a feat which demands modern medicine to help humans sustain their health in such hostile conditions.
How did we end UP here?
In the 20th century, during which the first successful flight was made, humankind put its first satellite into space, sent its first human being (and even a *dog*) into orbit, landed a rocket on the moon, and established its space station—a time frame so short that some people lived to witness all of these events. The Space Race saw mankind's first challenges, especially when it came to our bodies in space; scientists faced quite the conundrum from a number of angles: they needed to figure out what they could do in order to ensure the astronauts survived the trip, the arrival, and their stay as well. During this time, we still could not run prolonged space trips despite significant advancements in the areas of medicine, engineering, and physics.
Error—can not compute: problems facing the missions
It was difficult because unlike rockets, humans have an additional number of barriers they must overcome to stay safe; examples include gravity, air pressure, and temperature in outer space—all of which cannot be handled by humans without special equipment. Technology has its obstacles, but we, as humans, have one big issue as well: we are vulnerable.
1. Space Radiates Energy
The most dangerous aspect of traveling to Mars is space radiation; astronauts receive over ten times the radiation that Earth does**. A three year prolonged exposure to Mars’ orbit would surpass the radiation safety limits set by NASA***, and the risks of developing cancer as a result becomes twice as likely after a Mars mission.
Landing on Mars alone is no easy task in itself. Mars’ atmosphere is much thinner than Earth’s; this causes not only extreme fluctuations in temperature, but also increased exposure to the sun’s radioactive waves. The Mars Radiation Environment Experiment (MARIE), which measures radiation, found that the levels in orbit above Mars are about two and a half times higher than at the International Space Station, which can prove fatal for astronauts****. It could also damage electrical equipment as radiation can increase exponentially with other solar activities such as a sun flare.
2. The Gravity of the Situation
The composition differences between outer space and planet Earth and how the former interacts with our bodies may have several long-term effects. Astronauts today have encountered issues such as prolonged weightlessness, eyesight impairment, weakening of bones and muscles, and cardiac rhythm abnormalities. Currently, astronauts cannot permanently live in space stations because prolonged weightlessness in particular can exacerbate these bodily damages when returning to Earth's gravity. Without gravity, one’s bones lose minerals: Bone density in space generally drops over 1% a month; By comparison, the elderly on Earth lose that much bone density during one year.
These are just some of the obstacles we face in traveling to space. When landing on Mars, one first needs to decompress themselves, and subsequent decompression sickness is common. However, one may also get barotrauma*****, which is physical damage to bodily tissues caused by a difference of air or water pressure between a cell’s space inside the body and the surrounding gas or fluid. When working outside of research stations and on the surface of Mars, our bodies need to adjust to the Martian pressure. One specific challenge we face in this respect is figuring out how to make living spaces comparable to Earth’s since Mars has only about one-third the gravity of Earth.
3. Physical and Mental Health
Land on Mars is quite barren, so developing a life support system is crucial. Life support systems are a group of devices—such as the astronauts’ suits or space shuttles’ living quarters—which allow human beings to survive in outer space. While these structures are meant to supply air, water, and food, they also must maintain consistent temperatures and a pressure level within acceptable limits; simultaneously, they must be able to manage the body's waste products. However, we must seek more efficient ways to transport large amounts of these systems while ensuring that they can be sustained. Failures within these systems could be disastrous since these items are the only resources for humans in space. Current problems include their heavy weight, complexity to build, and the possibility of structurally falling apart in this environment. Lack of medical facilities also means that people are more vulnerable to unknown or deadly microorganisms in space and that important equipment or personnel needed could be unavailable in the case of an emergency.
To make matters even more difficult, one’s mental health is susceptible on both the journey and arrival to Mars. When locked in a compact space for such an increased time, stress causes one’s hormone levels to elevate as the immune system faces an extreme and unfamiliar environment, which leads to an increased susceptibility to allergies or other illnesses. A lack of community can also increase the feeling of isolation that space already exacerbates. The distance of 140 million miles can also delay satellite communication with Earth and elevate feelings of uneasiness.Our mental health impacts our physical health, which is already compromised with its interactions in space.
What does the future mean to YOU?
Our bodies and machines are not yet ready to sustain our fragile bodies in space for too long, but it could be possible if preceded by scientific and medicinal advancements. Our bodies are a complex system with various internal webs needing to work in conjunction with one another in order to operate. Aerospace companies seek skills from a wide scope of careers such as engineering, medical research, and rocket manufacturing******; this goes to show that there is no one path when it comes to space-related jobs. If you want to help with medicine and the human body, there are many companies here on Earth that do research for these aerospace companies. As the concept of commercial space travel becomes more of a reality, medicine and life science research for these galactic travelers are needed more than ever. If you are interested in space, ask your department, professors, or peers in your field what you could contribute to these projects; the NASA website is also an excellent place to begin.
History has shown us that humans can overcome obstacles even in the face of uncertain circumstances. The gears for our interplanetary voyage into the unknown is now in motion. Perhaps in our lifetimes, we will watch in awe as man puts his foot on Mars, just as we were awed half a century ago; but we still have work to do. Until then, let us work together to overcome the medical challenges we face so we can fulfill that goal.
*NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Infographics
**NASA Human Research Program
***NASA.Gov Moon to Mars
*****Pacific Northwest National Laboratory