Getting to Mars will be stopped by health, not technology

Image credit | den-belitsky

You have to wonder if the successful launch of the two astronauts on the SpaceX vessel last weekend has brought us any closer to Mars, and beyond? It has certainly brought with it an acknowledgement of the host of things that we still do not know about space and how to survive in it.

Another challenge is that we are getting better at seeing into space in ways that we never have before – and therefore finding new and extraordinary challenges.

There is the on-going questions about unexplained (and massive) explosions in space that are still baffling scientists. Then there are the bursts of activity, some coming from our galaxy, which could be signals from aliens – or not.

It is now emerging that the most talked-about visitor to our skies, from 2018, the strange object Oumuamua could be one of the rarest objects in the universe, ever. Scientists are saying that it could be a hydrogen iceberg. It is, they say, the explanation that works best, giving the baffling nature of the object and how it travels. A hydrogen iceberg only forms at a couple of degrees above absolute zero and, as such, is extraordinarily rare.

The SpaceX Dragon trip also leads to the question ‘where next’? Mars?

And that leads to the question ‘how’?

One of the big problems with space travel, it seems, is that we are human, with human diseases and fallibilities and space makes these all the more dangerous.

Even a common cold is much more dangerous in space and during the Apollo 7 mission in 1968, caused a mutiny. The problem is that you can’t just blow your nose and carry on regardless. It is almost impossible to clear mucus (apologies) in the capsule. The inside of Apollo 7 was, in the words of one of the crew, more like the inside of a used Kleenex container.

They have come up with pretty inventive ways of treating various ailments – from the remote treatment of a blood clot to dealing with a heart attack. The trick here, it seems, is to get the patient to stand against one wall of the space craft, and another to brace themselves against the opposite wall. And then, yes, you guessed it, launch themselves as fast as possible into the patient’s chest.

All of which makes good, light-hearted reading (unless you have a heart attack in space) but brings up possibly the most important issue for the future of space travel. The point becomes more serious when you consider the timescales involved. If we are heading to Mars anytime soon (and we don’t know a lot about that particular planet), it is a long trip and a lot longer than any mission to the International Space Station. Even on those missions, we know that bones lose density, and the lack of gravity can play havoc with your brain.

If we are truly going to Mars, and beyond, it will be health issues that hold us back. Not Mr Musk’s rockets.

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