SpaceWorks Believes Cryogenic Sleep Holds the Key to Space Travel
Our bodies require too much maintenance to speed through the stars. We need a steady supply of those things absent from space; namely water, food and oxygen. We crave warmth but won’t find it in deep space, where the average temperature is minus 455 degrees Fahrenheit.
Even if we could survive in an icy vacuum without sustenance, we’d probably go insane without distractions and room to move. In 2013, participants in a 17-month Russian spaceflight simulation became depressed and lethargic in the cramped quarters. They grew desperate for privacy and often skipped exercises that would be crucial during a real spaceflight.
Ensuring space travelers stay healthy and active during long flights is a puzzle with two pieces: cargo and weight. Food, water, exercise equipment and televisions are heavy. Fuel is expensive and volatile. The more weight you’re bringing into space, the more fuel you need. But aeronautic engineers believe they have found the key to solving that puzzle: put your space travelers to sleep.
While it seems like the most speculative sort of science fiction, these imagined spaceship stasis chambers may become working reality in the next three decades. According to a NASA-funded study, keeping astronauts unconscious almost halves the haul of any given trip. When a crew is placed in an inactive state, many of the ship’s subsystems can be removed and the space and equipment needed for humans significantly cut down. The negative psychological and social aspects of prolonged space travel could be mitigated, too.
Currently, 14 days is the longest a human being has been recorded surviving in stasis. To just get to the red planet, our closest celestial neighbor besides the moon, astronauts would need to be under for ten times as long. With our present rocket technology, it takes between six and nine months to travel the 55 million kilometers between Earth and Mars.
Drawing from emerging technology and centuries-old medical techniques, engineers are looking to keep people unconscious for weeks at a time. But while studies have been encouraging, hypernative and cryogenic sleep keep getting interrupted. Initially promising research has hit dead ends and money for continuing research has been elusive despite media and popular interest in unconscious astronauts. One company thinks they’ve cracked the problem.
Since 2013, Atlanta-based aerospace engineering firm SpaceWorks has been exploring the possibility of keeping space travelers in a hibernation-like state. That year, they received one of 12 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) grants to pursue Phase 1 of their “Torpor Inducing Transfer Habitat For Human Stasis To Mars” project.
SpaceWorks believes a common medical procedure is the key to sending people into the furthest reaches of space. “The nearest equivalent to hibernation currently experienced by humans is a medical condition called therapeutic hypothermia,” SpaceWorks researcher Doug Talk said.
Therapeutic hypothermia, used to treat cardiac arrest and babies born with certain birth defects, reduces body temperature by about 10 degrees through methods ranging from ice packs and cooling blankets to catheters. SpaceWorks believes they can use therapeutic hypothermia to put human beings into torpor, the long hibernative state bears enter to endure long winters. Once in torpor, the subjects can be transported through space.
Cold is at the heart of stasis. Cold slows the functioning of internal organs, dialing down the speed of the heart and metabolic systems. You need less sustenance and take up less space than a conscious person. And since you’re unconscious, there’s no risk of cabin fever.
Engineers being engineers, the SpaceWorks team has acknowledged that their plan sounds like science fiction.