NASA Is Working on Cryosleep Chambers for Astronauts

Deep sleep chambers that let fictional astronauts nap their way to distant galaxies have long been staples in sci-fi movies. But soon, they could be here for real. Scientists are already hard at work on them.

Fly Me to the Mars

It took about three days to get astronauts to the moon during the Apollo missions. If we want to go anywhere else in the solar system, it's going to take a whole lot longer. With extended travel times, though, comes a slew of complicated problems. The eight days it took to haul Apollo 11 crew members to the moon and back didn't require too much in terms of supplies and space, but just a one-way ticket to Mars would take about six months — a journey that would require a lot of equipment to facilitate food preparation, exercise, science stations, bathrooms, sleeping quarters, and entertainment. One solution to this problem could be to put space travelers in "torpor," or an induced state of hibernation.

The company SpaceWorks Enterprises received a $500,000 grant from NASA in 2016 to try their hand at solving this problem. Headed by Dr. John Bradford, the Atlanta-based company has since been working on a torpor strategy that could make the long trip to Mars cheaper, safer, and less physically and psychologically taxing for crewmembers.

"With the crew in a torpor state, we believe we can significantly reduce the mass and volume of the in-space habitat during the outbound and return segments of the mission," SpaceWorks project manager Jacob Vallo recently told Curiosity via email. "This ultimately reduces the entire launch mass for the system. The habitat itself will be a very small module, nominally containing four to six crew members each in their own sleep chamber."

You're Getting Very, Very Sleepy ...

Here's how it would work: Torpor is a state of inactivity characterized by low body temperature, slow breathing, slow heart rate, and low metabolic rate, but continued brain activity. It's not unlike the way bears hibernate through the winter. Though humans aren't natural hibernators, it is something that's occurred in humans in a medical environment before. In medically induced torpor, also known as therapeutic hypothermia (TH), doctors will lower a patient's body temperature to help reduce the risk of the injury to tissue during a period of poor blood flow. This may be a good option for patients who have suffered cardiac arrest, stroke, trauma, and brain injuries, as well as infants born premature or who had a complicated delivery. By lowering the patient's temperature by even a couple of degrees, the procedure makes it so cells need less oxygen, and that protects them from the damage that could otherwise occur.

"While current clinic protocols typically call for administering TH for 24-72 hours in cases of trauma, we are targeting torpor periods of 7-14 days. In time, the technique may be perfected to extend the torpor duration to periods of months," says Vallo. "During a deep space mission, the crew would then undergo repeat cycles of torpor, with brief periods of activity (2-3 days), while in transit.

"During torpor, the crew still requires nutrition and hydration. We provide a liquid enteral solution to feed the crew via a Percutaneous Endoscopic Gastrostomy (PEG) tube. We know this solution works well and is understood medically due to common use in clinical environments."

Don't Hold Your Breath

Before you start dreaming of the days you can nap your way to the stars, there's still a ways to go. Right now, SpaceWorks is "transitioning from NASA funding to private funding to continue the next phase of research and development in the field of sleep engineering for both space and terrestrial applications," says Vallo. Throughout this process, SpaceWorks has continuously tweaked their approach and methods to make torpor a viable option for Mars-bound astronauts. According to Quartz, Bradford believes SpaceWorks could possibly achieve this capability for manned missions as soon as the 2030s.

However, the plan isn't necessarily just Mars-or-bust for this torpor tech. "While our original research began with a mission of reducing the payload size and the system for the crew to Mars," says Vallo, "we believe there are a number of Earth and more near term applications, medical devices and other innovations which will benefit humanity in the near and medium term prior to deep space expeditions." Mars may still be in the distant future, but this new technology might help us Earthlings sooner than you think.

Want more? Check out the book "Going to Mars: The Stories of the people Behind NASA's Mars Missions Past, Present, and Future" by Judith Reeves-Stevens, Garfield Reeves-Stevens, and Brian Muirhead. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Joanie Faletto June 22, 2018

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