How precious can sleep be? Studies seem to show that it can actually be used to make manned spaceflight cheaper and more affordable.
A NASA-backed collaborative study with aerospace engineering firm SpaceWorks Enterprises to reduce the cost of manned expeditions to Mars points to this. It recommends placing astronauts in a form of deep sleep (known as ‘stasis’ or ‘therapeutic torpor’) to slow down their metabolic function and reduce their need for food and water.
The concept of medical torpor is not new. Critical care trauma patients have been subjected to periods of stasis limited to about a week to keep them in stable condition while waiting for proper treatment. But how does this help Mars-bound space travel? At the 65th International Astronautical Congress in Toronto, SpaceWorks Enterprises engineer Mark Schaffer showed just how.
The 350 million mile journey to Mars from Earth takes about 180 days. RhinoChill, which induces therapeutic hypothermia to keep cardiac arrest patients in stable condition while waiting for proper treatment, will be used to place astronauts in a state of hibernation. The system will pump coolant into the nose to gradually reduce body temperature (this could take about 6 hours) to 89°F – 93°F, when the astronauts will reach the stasis state. While in this state, the crew will be fed intravenously. By the time they arrive at their destination the flow of the coolant will be stopped to wake them up. A spinning habitat has been proposed to offset bone and muscle loss.
Sounds like out of a movie? Not really. A stasis-reliant space flight appears to be economically sound based on the initial results. The SpaceWorks study shows the mission baggage could be slashed by almost half (from approximately 400 tons to only about 220 tons), which would mean smaller spaceships too.
The study’s one-week tests conducted on humans seem promising. However, further tests are still needed before this can be considered a viable option for a more affordable trip to Mars.