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By: Andrianna Veatch, Staff Reporter
Science Fiction is one of the largest, most popular genres of all time. With President Trump wanting to re-open the space program with the intention of getting America back to the moon and to Mars, the space adventures we love may finally have a shot at becoming reality. The chief difficulty with living in space, however, is that the human body is not designed to live there, at all. The medical issues facing mankind in space are fascinating, particularly since in science fiction, any and all medicine tends to be handwaved by crazy-advanced technology or magic cures rather than explored and addressed.
The human body is optimized to survive in earth’s conditions: 21% oxygen atmosphere, an average temperature of 22 oC, and 1g gravitational force. In space, or even on lower density celestial bodies like the moon, bone density will decrease, becoming fragile and brittle; muscles become atrophied. Within minutes of entering microgravity, fluids that normally collect in the lower body are no longer being affected by a gravitational pull, and instead flow to the upper body, causing neck veins to distend, and the enlargement of organs such as the liver and pancreas. 60% of astronauts suffer from long-term far-sightedness. This all sounds very grim, and overcoming these physical obstacles is no small hurdle, but rigorous exercise, the correct diet, and medications can partly alleviate some of the worse effects, and currently, none of these issues are estimated to prevent a successful and relatively healthy flight to and from Mars.
In science fiction, a common method of avoiding long travel times between planets, or to get around physical degeneration as described above, is to employ suspended animation or cryofreezing. So far, cells from corneas, bone, and skin, as well as sperm samples and oocytes (immature egg cells) have been successfully frozen in liquid nitrogen, but science is nowhere near preserving human organs or full bodies yet. However, there is a theory that human cells could be preserved through “vitrification,” a process that, theoretically, cools the water in cells so that they do not actually freeze, but become “glass”—that is, a liquid that is far too cold to flow or freeze. This allows the metabolism and cellular motion to cease, and structures like the nuclei will stay in their correct anatomical location. While vitrification itself should cause no injury to cells, there is great danger of damage during thawing due to the rather controversial glass transition temperature for water.
Hopefully, America is looking to the stars once again, and while the trip will be physically challenging, there is the hope of actuality now. True science is always uncovering new methods, new truths, to help us reach those stars.