At a conference in 2016, SpaceX founder Elon Musk said that he hopes to send humans to Mars as soon as 2024 on the Red Dragon capsule (1). This is seven years away, so it may seem like this gives SpaceX plenty of time to work out all of the technological, health and psychological obstacles that have so far presented themselves. However, recent announcements and findings have unveiled some worrying health challenges that astronauts may have to confront during the mission to Mars. After all, the mission will be 900 days or longer, which is ample time for complications to occur (2).
Emergency medical care in space
Intensive care expert Matthieu Komorowski has warned that astronauts will need extensive training in order to treat life-threatening illnesses and injuries during the trip to Mars (3). Crew members do undergo some medical training, but it is very basic and covers only a fraction of the medical expertise that a qualified medical doctor has. Komorowski said:
“During these long duration flights, the estimated risk of severe medical and surgical events, as well as the risk of loss of crew life are significant.
The exposure to the space environment itself disturbs most physiological systems and can precipitate the onset of space-specific illnesses, such as cardiovascular deconditioning, acute radiation syndrome, hypobaric decompression sickness and osteoporotic fractures.”
Thus, there are many kinds of illnesses and injuries that could befall an astronaut. Jochen Hinkelbein, from the Department of Anaesthesiology and Intensive Care Medicine at the University Hospital of Cologne, highlights that, “There is also a substantial risk for a cardiac arrest in space requiring CPR.” But the microgravity environment of space makes CPR kind of difficult, since it requires a person to use their body weight. So medical techniques need to be developed which will work effectively in a microgravity context.
Furthermore, a study last year found that astronauts who had travelled into deep space have a “significantly higher” chance (43%) of experiencing cardiovascular problems compared to astronauts who hadn’t gone into deep space. This is due to the effects of deep space radiation (4).
Astronauts are of course screened for good health and are continually monitored throughout their training in order to identify any health risks. But long-term missions increase the risks significantly. This means that all factors that can contribute to cardiovascular disease (CVD) – which includes all diseases relating to the heart and cardiovascular system – should be controlled for.
This is where nutrition plays a crucial role, as some foods can increase the risk of CVD, while others can decrease that risk. For example, processed meat (which is part of an astronaut’s diet) heightens the risk of developing coronary heart disease (CHD; 5). On the other hand, there are many foods which protect heart health, so perhaps an astronaut’s diet should include more of these foods – or, if some are already on the menu, then they could be eaten in larger quantities or more often (6).
Image source: NASA
The risk of cancer
A study published in Scientific Reports predicts a significant increase in cancer rates among astronauts destined for the mission to Mars or any other long-term mission (7). This is because the Earth’s magnetic field provides protection against galactic cosmic ray (GCR) exposure, which can increase the risk of not only cancer, but also damage to the central nervous system, cataracts, circulatory diseases and acute radiation syndromes (8).
And the longer that one is exposed to GCRs, the higher the health risks. Indeed, study author Francis Cucinotta says that the mission to Mars could double the risk of developing cancer.
As more research is being done on the health effects of long-term missions, we are learning more about how taxing, arduous, risky and potentially life-threatening it is for a human – who has evolved specifically on Earth – to travel in deep space for years at a time. Therefore, Musk’s plan to have humans sent to Mars by 2024 is (and should be) tentative. Ensuring a successful and safe mission to Mars is far more important than landing on Mars as soon as possible. All possible risks must be studied, carefully assessed and accounted for in the planning and preparations.
About the author: Sam Woolfe @samwoolfe
Sam is a writer who is especially interested in space exploration, sustainability, animal agriculture, nutrition, wellbeing and smart drugs. He is also currently writing a book about the psychedelic drug DMT.
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