Calling all space bears! The European Space Agency announced it will be evaluating using hibernating astronauts on its future missions to Mars in order to save space in the spacecraft (and money, of course). While placing humans into a hibernation or suspended animation state is still restricted to emergency rooms, brain surgery clinics and science fiction movies, this would be a great time for any members of the family Ursidae with an urge to travel beyond the park to become a real Ursa Major. Hairy narcoleptics may also be interested.
“We looked at how an astronaut team could be best put into hibernation, what to do in case of emergencies, how to handle human safety and even what impact hibernation would have on the psychology of the team.”
Sorry to disappoint any bears still reading, but this is an actual study done by the ESA with multiple noble intents and a few economical ones. According to the press release, the space organization’s SciSpacE (Science in Space Environment) research program is working with its Concurrent Design Facility to assess the advantages of human hibernation for a trip to Mars – a 180-day trip. That involved looking at current and planned drugs to induce “torpor” — the non-bear term for hibernation – and how to fatten up astronauts to give their bodies fuel to live on without clogging their arteries. They also evaluated the next-generation of life-support pods that would keep their bodies cool, fueled and ready to march onto Mars when the ship landed.
“Finally we created an initial sketch of the habitat architecture and created a roadmap to achieve a validated approach to hibernate humans to Mars within 20 years.”
The “habitat” or spacecraft is what the budget people at the ESA and NASA are always most interested in, and this is where hibernation is a big selling point. This was the first time the Concurrent Design Facility looked at building a hibernation ship to take six humans to Mars and bring them back within five years. Right off the bat, they found that a hibernation ship with reduced living quarters could be one-third smaller and several tons lighter (think food, fuel, waste, gyms, dirty clothes, etc.) than a regular ship. This would also reduce the need for radiation protection, with the astronauts spending their time in a restricted area – the pods.
Ground Control to Major Tom
Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Of course, as David Bowie knew, at some point Mission control or the AI running the ship would have to wake up the torpored crew and deal with emergencies. Developing an AI machine capable of flying a ship to Mars, keeping the crew alive and healthy, dealing with problems and earning the confidence of family, fellow astronauts and everyone else back on Earth who’s seen Apollo 11 or 2001: A Space Odyssey (“Open the pod bay doors, HAL.”) might eat up all of the money saved by putting them in hibernation in the first place.
All of that “within 20 years.” Can ESA pull it off? Should they? Would you be the first hibernating astronaut in space? Would you trust the AI in charge of getting you to Mars?
DAVE: Hal, I won’t argue with you anymore. Open the doors!
HAL: Dave…This conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye.