As private companies ramp up efforts to paint Mars as the new frontier and foreign governments make plans to send manned missions to the moon in the coming years, the New York Times preminded us of the biggest limitations to our future interstellar adventures: Human bodies aren't supposed to live in space. Not that will ever stop us from trying, but there are a lot of issues to solve.
According to the Times, a recent "unknown unknown" — what scientists call unexpected complications — has reminded scientists that we still don't know how bodies will react to extended stints in outer space. Specifically, they are talking about two astronauts on an extended mission who discovered that their vision was failing:
In 2009, during his six-month stay on the International Space Station, Dr. Michael R. Barratt, a NASA astronaut who is also a physician, noticed he was having some trouble seeing things close up, as did another member of the six-member crew, Dr. Robert B. Thirsk, a Canadian astronaut who is also a doctor. So the two performed eye exams on each other, confirming the vision shift toward farsightedness. They also saw hints of swelling in their optic nerves and blemishes on their retinas. On the next cargo ship, NASA sent up a high-resolution camera so that they could take clearer images of their eyes, which confirmed the suspicions. Ultrasound images showed that their eyes had become somewhat squeezed.
Eye squeezing is something to be avoided, we think.
The known risks of space travel include increased exposure to radiation, which could put space travelers at higher risk for contracting cancer (and possibly brain damage) than their earth-bound counterparts. Also: weakened bones, a malady that researchers think can be counteracted by regular exercise and osteoporosis medication. Scientists suspect that simulating gravity on spacecrafts would solve the ocular problems, but are hesitant to do so because creating gravity in space means "spinning the spacecraft like a merry-go-round," which, understandably, would "add complexity to a mission and raise the potential for a catastrophic accident."
So far, the longest time an astronaut has spent in space has been roughly one year and two months. Next year, astronaut Scott J. Kelly will spend a year on the space station, giving NASA an opportunity to monitor his health over a long-term stay. In 2030, the agency hopes to send people to Mars for a two-and-a-half-year stay, but obviously that's a long way off.
So why do we insist on going somewhere that we clearly don't belong? A private company called Mars One is also offering people the opportunity to pay to go to Mars and never come back home. Roughly 200,000 people filled out the application. According to one scientist, the technology required to send people to Earth from Mars simply doesn't exist yet. Huffington Post Live's Mike Sacks spoke to people hoping to join the one-way mission, who spoke about their desire to leave behind the rest of human-kind forever. Tim Gowan, 26, said he'd "probably cry over it for a little while," calling the decision a "sacrifice for the greater good."
The assumption that Mars could be an acceptable alternative to life than Earth seems to be a reaction (at least in part) to the drastic damage we've done to our planet. Climate change warnings are repeatedly ignored by governing bodies, even as politicians speak to a commitment to change. President Barack Obama is poised to approve a massive trans-Pacific trade deal devoid of a number of environmental safeguards, and meteorologists predict that in the coming decades super-storms, exacerbated by warming ocean temperatures, will become much more common. In China, smog is so heavy and dangerous that on some days, citizens are advised not to leave the house.
Dealing with global warming by sending people to Mars seems like a silly thing to do, but also perfectly aligns with our institutional tendency to ignore preventative action, opting to retroactively pour money at a problem once disaster strikes. We hope that this isn't the case with global warming, because we don't want to live alone forever on Mars. But if all else fails and we do have to go to space, we hope we can get there with our eyeballs intact.