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The Hazards of Deep Space Travel
The Hazards of Deep Space Travel
In May, astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut, Mikhail Kornienko safely returned to earth after 340 days in space aboard the International Space Station. Kelly returned a hero. However his medical condition raised serious concerns about the the human bodies durability for long term space missions. Scott Kelly, who had previously undergone a 159–day mission to the International Space Station in 2010 and 2011, said he was surprised at how differently he felt compared upon return this time around. Kelly stated, "Exposure to the space environment has permanent effects we simply do not fully understand."
Shortly after he returned, Kelly developed strange flu-like symptoms, his legs developed swelling due to earth gravity, and his skin became extremely sensitive and became inflamed. Kelly stated, After I got back, I've talked about just being really sore and stiff. My skin had not touched anything in 340 days except just your clothing. Anything it touched, it felt like it was on fire. I actually had some rashes and kind of discoloration anywhere I had contact. And then I kind of had flu-like symptoms for a few days. Had I not been in space for a year and I knew what this was, I would have gone to the emergency room and said, "Hey, I don't know what's wrong with me, but I'm not feeling that great."
All of Kelly's symptoms may be due the weightless environment of the ISIS. It may be possible to alieve these symptoms by using a space ship that has a centrifugal force artificial gravity. Such a round spinning crew quarters was seen in the Arthur C Clarke novels and movies 2001 and 2010. More recently this idea was utilized in the Brain DePlama movie Mission to Mars.
In addition to the problem of weightlessness, there is a problem of cosmic radiation in deep space travel. The earth's magnetic field protects life on our planet from radiation that kills or damages cells. If you leave the planet, you are no longer under the magnetic field protection. NASA astronauts have reported seeing white flashes while in space. This disturbing phenomenon was due to cosmic rays, or extremely high-energy particles, passing through their heads.
NASA has been working on developing high density lightweight plastic to use as a radiation shield on spaceships. In addition, NASA has been exploring the possibility of using superconducting magnets to generate magnetic fields around space probes and space habitats to protect them from space radiation and cosmic rays. “The concept of shielding astronauts with magnetic fields has been studied for over 40 years, and it remains an intractable engineering problem,” says Shayne Westover of Johnson Space Center (JSC). But, he says, “superconducting magnet technology has made great strides in the past decade.”
One way to bypass all deep space hazards is to use robots. The robot rovers on Mars have performed very well. The robot New Horizons probe provided us with the first look at what Pluto looks like. However, not all exploration can be done by robots. At some point, we need to put men and women in space.
What does this mean for science fiction? It means currently deep space travel is more difficult that expected. If you are writing a story in the near future, it would add realism to your story to mention how you are dealing with the problems of long term space missions. In the novel The Precipice, writer Ben Bova created a character that, because of his long term exposure to cosmic radiation, he had to limit his long term space travel. The character's problem added a little realism to the story.
What does this mean in the real world to NASA space missions? Scott Kelly warns. “The environment astronauts are exposed to while in space is unlike anything we experience here on earth. Specifically, astronauts are exposed to high levels of radiation and carbon monoxide, and a micro-gravity environment which causes loss of bone and muscle, vision impairment and effects on our immune system to name a just a few,” he wrote in his prepared remarks to the House Science, Space and Technology committee. “These are very real issues that need to be solved before the human race is able to reach destinations beyond the Earth and the Moon.”
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