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January 2011 Issue

Martian Landscape, from Rover Mission
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What Toll Would It Take on Human Health to Fly to the Red Planet?

By Katie Pence
Published January 2011

A mission to Mars is something that has been described in detail on science-fiction television dramas, in comics and in books for decades, often showing slimy green space creatures vying for control of Earth against space travelers in tinfoil suits.


But as technology advances, the possibility of such a trip is becoming a reality, and astronauts need to know what to expect and how to prepare for a voyage such as this, which could differ greatly from other space expeditions in many areas.


Charles Doarn, an expert in space medicine, aerospace medicine and telemedicine and a research associate professor in the department of public health sciences, recently published information about medical care needed for a mission to Mars and for an extended stay on its surface.


It was published in the November edition of the Journal of Cosmology.


How did this article come about?

"Several years ago, NASA Chief Medical Officer Richard Williams asked me to come back to NASA to work with him in an advisory role. The previous CMO, Arnauld Nicogossian, is a dear friend and my former boss. The fourth author of this paper, Dave Williams, is an astronaut. We were invited to write a paper on medical care based on our current knowledge for a special issue of the Journal of Cosmology. This has been published and will now also appear in book entitled In the Human Mission to Mars: Colonizing the Red Planet. The paper/chapter discusses medical care for both a transit mission and an extended stay on the surface of Mars for up to a year with a subsequent return. So, the total duration would be nearly three years.”


Can you explain each of the major differences between a trip to the moon versus a trip to Mars, in regard to the crew’s health needs?


"There are a number of major differences. The first is distance. The moon is approximately three days (240,000 miles) away. Mars, on the other hand, is upward of 40 million miles. It is estimated to take approximately nine months to get there. The second difference is communications. On the moon, communication with the Earth is in near real-time with a slight delay. Communications between the Earth and Mars are measured in minutes—approximately 22 minutes one way, when Mars is at its farthest. If Mars is on the other side of the sun, then there is no communication. Also, when traveling to the moon, the spacecraft could return by going around the moon and being led back by orbit. In a Mars mission, the spacecraft is basically on its way and cannot turn around, so a rescue is not possible. Crews going to the moon will experience some radiation exposure, but on a Mars mission, it’s an enormous issue, so the vehicle has to be designed with that in mind. Also, while maintenance and nominal operations are key elements of a day in space, three days versus 180 days is big difference. Crews on the International Space Station have stayed in orbit for periods of three to six months. Only a few have remained aloft for periods in excess of six months.”


How will these differences be remedied, or can they?


"Each mission requires a unique set of requirements based on its objective and duration. Work conducted on the International Space Station over its lifetime—through 2020—will provide a greater understanding of the impact space has on the human systems. This work coupled with the knowledge of the 30-plus year Shuttle Program and the plethora of research will drive how medical care is developed for such missions. Complementary to this growing body of applied and translational research is the rapid growth in technology. The very future of medicine will be intertwined with informatics, artificial intelligence, advanced communications and sensors. The challenge is not if we can address medical issues, it is when are we going to go.”


So, how soon do you think such a mission will be completed?


"The technology exists today to send humans to Mars. The Bush administration had developed a plan to get Americans to the moon and Mars within the next 20 years. This program was called Constellation. It has since been canceled with many of its parts; now, part of the Obama administration’s plan is to develop more commercial interaction for launch services, a human mission to a Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) in the coming decades and a human mission to Mars by the 2030s. The moon is no longer a destination.”

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