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On 20th July 1969, the Apollo 11 mission crew successfully landed on the Moon. Over half a century later, space engineers find themselves on the edge of entering another planet’s atmosphere in a quest to fulfil humanity’s most ambitious dream of a permanent life among the stars.

The increased popularity of sustainability initiatives coincides with the deteriorating condition of our planet; Yearly, over 390 billion tons of snow and ice melt from glaciers around the Globe, 8 million metric tons of plastic pollution enters the oceans, while warmest years ever recorded have occurred since 2001. Considering that the world’s population is expected to reach over 9 billion in 2050, embracing more of a sustainable lifestyle is no longer a temporary fad, but a long-term necessity. Leaving the Earth as the 21st century portrays it and inhabiting a different planet, such as Mars, would be an opportunity for the future to be translated into a new beginning for humankind.

However, the increased interest and availability of space explorations has both advantages and disadvantages. On a positive note, it can usher the way to extraordinary discoveries and innovations that can help us better understand our past and forecast our future. But at the same time, the diversification of space activities and the introduction of new players eager to turn humans into a ‘multi-planet species’ has the potential to aggravate many of the current sustainability challenges we are already facing on Earth. The vast amount of man-made debris that is populating the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) is now largely recognised as a serious threat to current space activity which includes over 1,500 satellites that serve important functions on Earth, such as banking, weather forecasting or communications.

Video credit: Stuart Grey – Space debris 1957-2016

As design innovators, we are constantly keeping an eye out for the latest ideas that are capable of elevating human life in a sustainable manner. Can the technology available on Earth be used on a different planet and is that enough to make sustainable living possible in space? Today we take a closer look at how the concept of sustainability could be adapted to a potential life on a different planet and whether or not the environmental crisis we are currently facing is an issue that can only happen on Earth.

From Earth Reliant to Earth Independent

NASA believes that humanity’s expansion to Mars can be defined as a three-step process divided by increased levels of challenges known as ‘Earth Reliant’, ‘Proving Ground’ and ‘Earth Independent’. While the Earth Reliant and Proving Ground phases are based on technology and health research aboard the International Space Station, Proving Ground will see astronauts harvest, live and work on Mars.

Nevertheless, if people were to live on Mars, they would have to address an array of issues in order to acquire a lifestyle that is as similar as possible to the one on Earth. It might take them a very long time to turn Mars into a self-sustainable planet capable of growing crops given its thin atmosphere, low temperatures and constant solar radiations.

Bringing the global warming on Mars

Should we try to generate global warming on Mars in order to make life there feel less alien to humans? ‘Exactly!’ would say Stephen Petranek, TED speaker, award-winning journalist and author of ‘How We’ll Live on Mars’. Terraforming has frequently been depicted as a compelling option to turn Mars into a habitable place considering that releasing carbon dioxide trapped in the planet’s surface would thicken its atmosphere and, consequently, increase its temperature. Unfortunately, NASA-sponsored studies concluded that Mars does not hold enough carbon dioxide that could be put back into its atmosphere to warm it up. In other words, a scenario illustrating humans exploring the Red Planet without pressurised hubs and suits cannot materialise without the technology that goes well beyond today’s competencies.

A return to the basics

Currently, space explorers aboard the International Space Station have regular supplies of food delivered to them by cargo vehicles but that would hardly be the case for people living on Mars, since a one-way journey might take six to eight months. Astronauts living on Mars, also referred to as ‘marsonauts’, would need to make use of hydroponic greenhouses and regulated environmental systems in order to grow crops – a bit similar to what The Martian movie has taught us about space farming.

Image credit: IMBd

Life on the Red Planet would be a great accomplishment for humankind, but it would also turn the clock back. Suddenly, people would find themselves in a hostile environment where nothing seems familiar. Even the 20-minute communication delay (the amount of time it takes a text from Mars to reach the Earth and the other way around) would have a huge impact on people’s performances.

Whether for good or bad, limited technological distractions would help them get more work done. This is also what happened to Sheyna Gifford, Health and Science Officer and Crew Journalist for the NASA’s fourth HI-SEAS project – a social experiment that focuses on how humans interact and work in a place of similar resources to the ones available on Mars. She described her life within the sMars site on the Mauna Loa side of the saddle area on the Big Island of Hawaii, as ‘elemental’. ‘Our chief concerns revolve around sun, air, water and rock (…) and what we can and can’t do with those four basics in the right combinationshe continued. The project highlights the idea that if people are soon to board on a one-way mission to Mars, they need to prepare for it on Earth.

Image credit: HI-SEAS

Before we even board a mission to Mars we need to address the way spacecrafts are being used, mainly because they are hardly ever reused. Most of the space vehicles sent to space, apart from the 30-year Space Shuttle programme, were abandoned after completing their missions, which left behind a great deal of waste in the form of both material and economic resources.

The prospect of building reusable spacecrafts will reduce costs dramatically and inevitably make space travel more of a sustainable activity. As the latter becomes a matter of increased interest, a group of space scientists, policy experts and scholars established the world’s first Institute for the Sustainable Development of Space in Canada in order to address the climate impact of the former.  Building on the principles of the 1967’s Outer Space Treaty, the organisation aims to offer a deeper insight into the principles and sustainability impact of space explorations to both national and international audiences.

Whether self-care on Mars will be translated into one’s ability to produce food, water, and warmth, it is also important to understand that a care for the planet itself will be mandatory. No nationality on Earth has complete ownership over outer space. It is shared among all the nations, which means that keeping it as unpolluted as possible is a collective responsibility.

Obscure, unfriendly, dangerous or unknown – these are no longer the main attributes that define space.  Interplanetary travel is now often seen as an exciting, open and limitless opportunity that humanity should focus on moving forward.  Nonetheless, while we find ourselves in the middle of a transition period moving from the Space known as cold, isolated and undiscovered towards a desirable and insightful place, substantial challenges are still to be addressed.

One of the arising challenges concerns the healthcare of space-travellers.  While technology is continuously developing following an exponentially ascendant trend, human evolution cannot naturally keep up the pace.  Thus, special focus needs to be pivoted around the human mind and body adaptation to space.  It is essential to understand all the factors that contribute to human body changes and especially how these might change with time in order to find optimum human-centred solutions that would make space travel safer and more accessible to a wider range of people.

What are the main spacefaring risks for human health?

As Red Planet missions became a certainty, human adaptation to longer residency in space was addressed and, according to NASA’s Human Research Program, the main hazards astronauts will encounter fall under 5 main categories: cosmic radiation, microgravity, hostile environments, isolation and confinement and distance to Earth.

The highest risk of long space travel is unanimously recognised to be space radiation. While on the space station, astronauts are subjected to over ten times the radiation occurring on Earth and this was found to have a negative impact on astronaut’s health leading to altered cognitive function, reduced motor function, and behavioural changes.  Space radiation can also cause radiation sickness that results in nausea, vomiting, anorexia, and fatigue. Moreover, one can develop degenerative tissue diseases such as cataracts, cardiac, and circulatory diseases. 

Transitioning between the three different gravity fields people would experience on a Mars mission can lead to serious motion sickness while affecting one’s spatial orientation, body parts coordination, balance and locomotion. Furthermore, lack of gravitational force causes bones minerals loss characterized by density dropping at a rate of 1% per month, endurance or cardiovascular deconditioning, vision impairment or even kidney stones.

In space, microbes can evolve and change characteristics making humans easy targets due to limited or hostile environments introduced by living inside a spacecraft over a long period of time. Consequently, there is a significant increase in the risk of allergies, illness and diseases.

Do people feel lonely in space?

However, it is crucial to understand how space affects the human mind and not just the body. A decline in mood, cognition, moral and interpersonal interaction are mild occurrences that have isolation and confinement as root causes. Despite the carefully crafted selection process and training of astronauts, behavioural issues are inevitable in such conditions leading to sleep disorders caused by anomalies introduced in one’s circadian rhythm, or even depression which might impact performance and mission success.

Astronaut health in space

Image credit: Stock

Distance to Earth will surely contribute to delay in communication and limited supplies that can potentially cause frustration or self-doubt and impact one’s mental health while testing both their physical and mental strength and confidence.

Are we there yet?

For observation of physiological, molecular and cognitive changes that could happen to a human from exposure to these spaceflight hazards, NASA conducted the ‘Twins Study’ by comparing Scott Kelly to his brother on Earth. This one-year-long in space study (twice the normal time) is a stepping-stone towards the three-year expedition to Mars as it led to significant discoveries such as lingering changes in Scott’s cognition and DNA.

Image credit: NASA

Despite the identification of cardiovascular, immunological, sensorimotor, musculoskeletal, reproductive and behavioural implications on spaceflight adaptation, supporting data available for men and women is imbalanced due to sex and gender disparity of people who have flown in space – 477 men vs. 57 women as of June 2013. Further innovative research investigated sex and gender-related differences in space, which introduced the concept of Personalised Medicine. Jeffrey P. Sutton, M.D., Ph.D., NSBRI’s President, CEO, and Institute Director believes that “Harnessing the power of 21st century personalized medicine, as practiced at leading medical schools and hospitals, will further mitigate the human health risks inherent to long-duration deep space missions.”

In the past 50 years, medicine has continuously evolved introducing disruptive innovation by taking a human-centred and inclusive approach. Although there are still many unknowns in the space equation and worldwide excitement for Space-travel pushes for timeliness exploration, ‘Framing questions with precision takes a lot of time and effort’ argues Elon Musk. Having available all current tools (human and technological), we are living in exciting times while talking about private lunar passenger flights (SpaceX), Passengers Space Flights (Virgin Galactic), further Mars exploration (NASA, SpaceX) and colonization (SpaceX). What a time to be alive!