When it comes to living on Mars, the human body is simply not suited to living for long periods in zero-g. Until this issue is solved, we have no hope of landing humans on the surface of Mars, nor can we create permanent residences in space.
That was the crux of the testimony given to the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology today by best-selling author of The Martian, Andy Weir. The hearing, entitled “Next Steps to Mars: Deep Space Habitats,” is exploring what NASA’s plans are for the development of deep space habitation. Weir was among speakers from NASA, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Orbital.
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Weir, who said he was not a space expert, but rather an enthusiast said that until we figure out how to handle the effects of living on zero gravity for long periods of time, the idea of living in such a world is out of the question.
“Astronauts who spend months in zero-g suffer bone loss and muscle degradation. Once they return to earth, they have to be carried out of their capsule by ground crew. It takes days, sometimes weeks for them to re-
adapt to gravity because their muscles are simply too weak to stand. Imagine, then, a crew of astronauts setting foot on the surface of Mars after eight months in space to get there. They would be unable to move, let alone execute their mission,” Weir said. “Weightlessness also causes degradation of the eyes. And, unlike the bone and muscle loss, which the body will repair once it returns to gravity, the eye damage is permanent and irreversible.
Astronauts aboard the International Space Station have to spend two hours per day exercising just to stay remotely healthy. This means that we dedicate one eighth of all waking-person-hours in space to counteracting the effects of zero-g habitation.”
Weir suggested building a space station that would have the crew compartment connected to a counterweight by a long cable -- 450 meters long, which is over a quarter mile -- and set the entire system rotating. This creates the centrifuge, which will generate constant outward force for the crew.
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“Inside the crew compartment, it would be virtually identical to the gravity we experience on Earth. All physiological problems of zero-g would be solved. Some would argue that one of the main purposes of a space station is to do experiments in zero-g. This is easily accommodated. We could have a node in the center. That would provide an area of zero-g for whatever experiments require it,” Weir said. “The astronauts would work in there as needed, but spend most of their time in the crew node where their bodies get the gravity they need to remain healthy. While the concept is simple, the engineering is very complex.”
NASA conducted experiments on the ground with centrifuges in the 1960s and found that humans get significant vertigo and dizziness from this effect if the rotation rate is faster than 2 revolutions per minute.
“I have no delusions that such a station would be easy to accomplish. Not only would it be the most massive space station ever built, but it would also have to stand up to the forces that its own artificial gravity creates. Plus, a rotating station would need very advanced control systems to keep its solar panels and thermal radiators properly aligned,” Weir said.
Once this station were built, it’s rotation rate could be adjusted to provide whatever gravity we wanted and we could test the long-term health effects of lunar gravity, or Martian gravity, or we could leave it at Earth gravity to ensure crew health, Weir stated.
“When the time comes for a human mission to Mars, the artificial gravity technology proven by this station will be employed in the vehicle that transports the astronauts there, ensuring that they are fully healthy and capable when they first set foot on the red planet,” Weir said.
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