As NASA prepares to send astronauts back to the Moon, human explorers will have to handle microgravity conditions and other elements that take a toll on the body. And for an Artemis mission that aims to send astronauts on multi-year trips to Mars, the crew will need to stay healthy — you can't get back to Earth quickly after all.
In a live presentation last week titled Artemis: Back to the Moon, a Tech Briefs reader had the following question for Nujoud Fahoum Merancy, Chief of the Exploration Mission Planning Office, at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX.
"How will crew health be maintained for Artemis?"
Read Merancy's edited response below.
Nujoud Fahoum Merancy: There are a lot of challenges to the human body being in space in microgravity. We're extremely well adapted to the 1G environment we live in. When you take humans out of that environment, there are a lot of challenges.
First, the microgravity. We all know about [microgravity's effect on] muscle deterioration and bones. NASA has a lot of experience in working in microgravity — in particular, in keeping the crew healthy doing exercise and the protocols they have for the crew. Astronauts are up there in excess of a year and are actually coming back there stronger than when they left. There are lots of good mitigations for the muscle and the skeletal system.
There are a lot of things that are a challenge that are not so easy to handle, though. Like radiation.
When crews are on the Space Station, they're actually still protected in large part by the magnetosphere of Earth. Six months on the ISS is equivalent to the radiation dosage of a two-week lunar mission. Once we start talking about going to the Moon for months at a time, and once we start talking about 3-year Mars missions, radiation becomes a huge issue. How do you keep the crew safe from that? Without gravity, the water in the body essentially pools up in the chest and the face. (If you look at the astronauts on orbit, you can see their face almost looks a little puffy, because gravity is not pulling the water from their head.) That causes a lot of secondary effects.
NASA is already working on this on the space station: How to tackle those challenges in microgravity. There are a lot of questions. How do these people transition from microgravity to partial gravity and then back to microgravity? What is the body going to go through with those kinds of cycles? There's a lot of research in front of us.
When we get to a two-and-a-half-plus-year Mars mission, we can't bring astronauts home quickly. We can't bring new things up for them. The "human" in "human space exploration" is one of the hardest challenges. There are a lot of teams working on this already. If you're interested, I always suggest googling "NASA contractors." A lot of universities do research in this area. NASA has a lot of scientists on staff and companies that help with this. There are many different ways to contribute on these types of things already, for sure.
More Artemis reader questions:
- How Does the Artemis Mission Differ from Apollo?
- What Are the Specific Objectives, Beyond Preparing for Mars?
- What are the Biggest Technology Challenges for Artemis?
- What is the Gateway Orbit?