Science Fiction Right Again: NASA Considering Deep Sleep Stasis For Mars Mission

Borrowing a page from classic science fiction stories, NASA is considering the use of a deep sleep process for crews to travel to Mars in stasis, according to Discovery News.

The long travel time to get to Mars would demand a high number of resources, and putting the crew in deep sleep for all or some of the trip would cut down on costs and resources needed for each trip. Research backed in part by NASA shows this to be a promising solution.

It may sound futuristic and innovative, but it wouldn’t necessarily be pleasant. The process would use the RhinoChill System, which is essentially a way for humans to inhale coolant through their nose. It’s not very comfortable, but it’s a more effective method of gradually cooling the body temperature from the inside. This system lowers body temperature by one degree per hour. After about six hours, the crew member’s temperature would dip to 89 to 93 degrees Fahrenheit, at which point they would reach a torpor state, or deep sleep, for the long trip to Mars.

“Therapeutic torpor has been around in theory since the 1980s and really since 2003 has been a staple for critical care trauma patients in hospitals,” said aerospace engineer Mark Schaffer of SpaceWorks Enterprises. “Protocols exist in most major medical centers for inducing therapeutic hypothermia on patients to essentially keep them alive until they can get the kind of treatment that they need.”

Intravenous feeding would keep the crew members healthy during their deep sleep to Mars.

The study was funded by NASA and headed by Dr. John Bradford at SpaceWorks, which presented the results at last week’s International Astronomical Congress in Toronto. Bradford runs a blog called Space Torpor, which updates progress and coverage on their deep sleep research for Mars travel.

The only problem with the deep sleep process is that the trip to Mars takes 180 days if the planets are lined up right. So far, modern medicine has only kept someone in a deep sleep for a maximum of seven days. But Schaffer doesn’t find any indication to worry about extending that.

“We have not seen any show-stoppers on the medical side or on the engineering side,” he said.

Even if the duration of a safe deep sleep couldn’t be extended to six months for the full trip to Mars, the crew could be put on a rotation so that at least one crew member is awake at all times for testing, research, and safety.

The benefits would be significant. Costs could be saved for the size of the ship needed for the journey. Amenities like galleys, exercise gear, and staples like water, food, and clothing would be fewer. In total, putting a Mars crew in deep sleep would bring the ship from 400 tons to 220 tons. There would be five times less pressurized volume needed, and three times less mass needed.

Like deep sleep space travel, a manned trip to Mars may itself still seem like science fiction, but NASA’s December-launching Orion is an important step closer.