Health problems are inevitable in space. You can get cancer, lose muscle tone, or lose memory. The list is long, but the attractiveness of the Red Planet is strong. Do you have what it takes to survive a 6-month space trip to Mars?
NASA wants people on Mars by 2035. Scientists are convinced that the planet possesses all the resources necessary to create a human colony, including water below the surface, and several sources of evidence confirming the fact that living creatures once existed on the Red Planet.
However, there is a six-month journey from Earth to Mars in a spaceship. Although this experience can literally be described as “not from this world”, a long list of problems is associated with this trip. People making this journey will be cut out in history, but first they will have to face a health risk that no one has ever encountered. Do you think you could have the mental and physical ability to handle such a journey?
Radiation Hazard: When Sunscreen Is Not Enough
The first problem on your trip is radiation. You cannot see it, and you cannot feel it, but be sure that you are constantly bombarded with radiation. And this is not the radiation that we have on Earth that can be blocked by decent sunscreen. Some forms of radiation in space can quite strongly collide with everything in its path, tearing plastic, metal and skin.
Almost every part of your body is exposed to radiation damage. Cancer is certainly one of the main problems, but there are many other health problems, including cardiovascular problems, cognitive impairment and memory problems, to name but a few.
However, this is not all doom and gloom. Researchers are working to offer some protection against radiation, including new materials for its protection, as well as innovative pharmaceutical approaches that may be more effective than protection. One example already working is the radiation assessment detector, which was sent to Mars specifically to prepare for future research by humans. This device measures radiation on Mars, including not only from space, but also any radiation received as a result of interaction with the atmosphere and the earth.
No gravity is dangerous for bones and muscles
Your second challenge is the lack of gravity. Both during space flights and in any future colonies on Mars, you will be exposed to the gravitational field "lighter" compared to what we have on Earth.
It may seem fun to sail in zero gravity, but it can be incredibly dangerous for your bones and muscles. Studies have shown that after only 3 weeks in space, some muscles can contract by one third, and during longer flights, the astronaut’s physical abilities decrease by 30-50%. All this is because blood vessels are not so effective for transporting oxygen to a working muscle in space. In practical terms, this means that you should expect that it will be easy for you to get tired and struggle to complete even the simplest tasks during your trip to Mars.
NASA recommends a two-hour training every day, but there is another possibility that many potential astronauts may like. Researchers have shown very positive results with resveratrol, an antioxidant found in red wine, and suggest that a moderate daily dose may help reduce muscle loss on Mars.
Low gravity also disrupts blood circulation, as some astronauts on the ISS found out. On Earth, gravity expels blood from the heart to the rest of the body, but under microgravity, the blood does not move like that. For example, the researchers found circulatory problems in several astronauts after only 50 days in space, and one of them even developed a case of thrombosis. While there is no solution to this problem, but a large number of astronauts experiencing these problems are enough to require further research.
Another problem associated with microgravity is that it can weaken the body’s fight against infection. On your way to Mars, you may encounter an unusual allergy and deal with a rash that you have never had. Standard measures, such as vaccines and proper nutrition, are important to strengthen the immune system, and this is usually combined with only pasteurized foods and drinks and strong air filters to prevent the spread of disease. But even such efforts are not enough, and researchers continue to look for ways to mitigate these problems.
Microgravity can also affect your gut microbiome. For example, long periods aboard the International Space Station (ISS) were enough to destroy astronaut Scott Kelly's intestinal microbiome compared to his Earth-bound twin brother Mark Kelly. Fortunately, these changes were not permanent, and perhaps when you stepped on a spaceship to begin your journey to Mars, you already have a long list of pre-, pro- and postbiotics to counteract these effects.
How space travel can affect your brain
Finally, last but not least, is the effect of space travel on your brain. Interestingly, a group of international experts, including those from Russia, discovered important changes in the brains of several astronauts after a long stay in space. It turns out that the brain adapts to microgravity, turning off the balance system in the ears and paying more attention to visual and tactile feedback. You will know that your brain completed this transition when the feeling of nausea and dizziness finally disappears. This may seem harmless, but such information is vital to developing ways to help people feel less sick in space and adapt more quickly to low gravity.
More alarming is the risk of dementia or memory loss. Imagine that you are going to Mars, but do not remember anything about your journey. Studies with mice found negative effects on the brain even 6 months after exposure to space conditions. However, there is some hope in the form of pharmaceutical products aimed at protecting neurons. There are no researchers yet, but work is ongoing.
Not ready yet, but working on it
The reality is that no one is going to send you to Mars, not knowing in detail how space travel can affect your body. However, such is the appeal of the Red Planet that the race is developing new ways to ensure safe travel.
By Alex Reis, a writer with special knowledge in the field of biology and natural sciences.