Space travelers could lose 50 percent of bone density in journey to Mars

Report details challenges that mission would pose

October 24, 2001|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Scientists do not yet know enough about the long-term effects of weightlessness, radiation and other health issues to allow NASA to send astronauts on a three-year voyage to Mars, according to a panel of experts affiliated with the National Academy of Sciences.

A report released yesterday warned that space travelers could lose 50 percent of their bone density during a journey to Earth's nearest planetary neighbor, meaning that they could be disabled by the collapse of their limbs, said the 14-member committee of the academy's Institute of Medicine.

To overcome this problem, engineers may have to invent an artificial gravity system to keep a relatively normal amount of pressure bearing down on space travelers, said the committee, which was chaired by Dr. John R. Ball of Havre de Grace. The report, called "Safe Passage: Astronaut Care for Exploration Missions," was submitted to NASA on Friday.

Although NASA has no concrete plans to send human explorers to Mars, the space agency has been studying how to make such a journey possible since 1991.

Significant challenges include the need to develop shields to protect astronauts from radiation and cosmic particles. Spaceships would also have to be designed to minimize psychological stress and conflict between astronauts. And the crew would need to be trained to respond to medical emergencies ranging from minor cuts to heart attacks.

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