The human body does not do well in space, or specifically in zero gravity. We are, let’s face it, a bit puny when it comes to conquering inhospitable environments.
Research into what exactly happens to the human body in space just got a bonus. Twins, one of whom is an astronaut.
Scientists used the Earthbound twin, Mark, as a control while they attached all sorts of wires and tubes to Scott, who stayed on the International Space Station for a record-breaking 340 days.
They confirmed what they already expected to find, and more. The eyes change shape; there is a loss of muscle mass and bone density.
There was more.
According to an article in the MIT Technology Review:
“Kelly experienced changes in his gut microbiome, his cognitive abilities slowed down, certain genes would turn off and on, and his chromosomes experienced structural changes”.
Worryingly, there were changes at a genetic level, some of which made no apparent sense at all. In short, the human body gets badly beaten up when in zero gravity for even a relatively short period of time.
This is a problem.
We are at a stage when the technology to get us to Mars is here or almost here but if the human body cannot make the trip and return without being sick for the rest of his or her life, then, Houston, we really do have a problem.
Of course, in the time-honoured tradition of space exploration, science fact is following science fiction (and some animal behaviour) in pursuit of a solution.
There are studies underway in Italy, for example, that are exploring induced hibernation techniques and their impact on the human body. The bad news is that, according to Matteo Cerri, a physiology researcher, we could see breakthroughs in the next two decades. This might serious delay the plans of Messrs Musk, Bezos et al.
That said, they are making progress, injecting mice brains with chemicals that react with areas that regulate heat. The goal, of course, is to get the human body to a point where it is on the brink of death, with the ability, obviously, to bring it back to life.
This is a huge and hugely complex undertaking. It is one thing to build machines that can power across enormous distances in space. It is quite another to create a cocktail of chemicals that will take a human body to the very brink of death and back.
And all of it needs to happen as easily as in Alien (while avoiding being an unwitting breeding ground for nasty bitey creatures).