Perhaps lost in all the recent talking and planning for missions to Mars – and the possibility of sustaining life on the Red Planet – is whether the human body is fit to survive for extended lengths of time there.
In an interview with Bloomberg, Dr. Christopher E. Mason of Weill Cornell Medicine said the body may need a few alterations, that breakthroughs in genetics and medicine could aid humans in long-term space exploration.
Mason, according to Bloomberg, “led one of the teams chosen by NASA to study the impact of long-term space travel on identical twins Scott and (now Senator) Mark Kelly after the former spent a year on the International Space Station. Mason’s lab also specializes in cancer research.”
A question-and-answer session with Bloomberg’s Adam Minter, in part helping to promote Mason’s project titled “The Next 500 Years: Engineering Life to Reach New Worlds,” shed light on the body’s capacity for adapting.
Minter: For 60 years, we’ve thought of rockets and space capsules and computers as the bounds on our ability to explore space. But you argue that in fact human biology is the bound.
Mason: Yeah, it is. But I’m not saying it has to be. Maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised at the glorious plasticity of the human physique’s response and humans will do just fine. … (But) just one long mission to Mars and back, will be pushing the limits … of radiation for human exposure.
Minter: So based on what you learned from the Kelly twins, what are the major health risks for, say, a Mars mission?
Mason: Every astronaut is a little biomolecular snowflake … But all of them face the same hazards: the change in gravity and the radiation.
As to whether space travel affects lifespan?
“I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say it’s shortening your life,” Mason said, but added it “likely increases long-term risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer, based just on the radiation exposure alone.”