Cryonic sleep and the idea of suspended animation have long been staples in the realm of science fiction, but this may soon become a reality for astronauts. A NASA-funded study by Atlanta-based company SpaceWorks would use existing medical technology to put astronauts into a prolonged cryonic sleep, called “torpor,” to significantly reduce the overhead on future deep space missions, including potential trips to Mars.
Cryonics has been in use since the early 2000s for treating patients with traumatic injuries. Cryonics severely lowers the body temperatures and metabolism of patients, which allows patients to live longer and therefore give medical personnel a better chance of saving lives. Some have even chose cryonic freezing in favor of burials after death, hoping to be “thawed” in the future where they will be able to be revived.
However, torpor has not been used to the extent that NASA plans to for deep space missions. An expedition to Mars, for example, at its shortest would last 180 days, far in excess of the current periods torpor has been used for medical purposes. However, a Chinese medical study shows promising results that could be put to good use. According to space engineer John Bradford, “[there were] about 80 people that went through therapeutic hypothermia for all sorts of traumatic injuries. And those periods did range from three to up to 14 days.”
The patient who was under the influence for 14 days recovered at the same rate as the other patients, a time period that could easily be adapted to practical use. One example of longer 14-day torpor use in deep space might involve astronauts taking rotating shifts to reduce the cost of resources during a long mission.
This is good news for future astronauts, especially following the psychological results derived from the Russian Mars500 project. Mars500 was a simulated experiment, which sealed a team of astronauts inside a capsule roughly the size of one that might be used for a deep space mission.
The major takeaway is that long-term trips in deep space can have highly detrimental effects on astronauts, especially their sleeping patterns. Even used sparingly, cryonic stasis would cut down on these drawbacks and make manned space missions much easier and safer.