Preparing for Mars: the physiologic and medical challenges

Eur J Med Res. 1999 Sep 9;4(9):353-6.


As the twentieth century closes, retrospectives cite the Apollo moon missions as one of the important events of the past 100 years. A trip to Mars, however, would be even more challenging and significant. A round-trip Mars journey would require nearly three years away from Earth, a significant leap in complexity compared to the two week long Moon trips or the record-breaking fourteen-month flight on Mir. What would be the physiologic and medical challenges of a Mars flight? Two key areas of physiology present the greatest potential problems--calcium metabolism and radiation exposure. Data from Mir missions show that bone loss continues in space despite an aggressive countermeasure program. Average losses were 0.35% per month, but some load bearing areas lost >1% per month. A 1% loss rate, if it continued unabated for 30 months, could produce osteoporosis. Smaller losses could still increase fracture risk. Some bone loss can be well tolerated, particularly if the bone can be regained after the mission. But the effectiveness of post-flight rehabilitation to restore the density and quality of bone after spaceflight is not well known. Bone loss estimates are based on continuous weightlessness exposure, but this is not a requirement for a Mars trip. Most of the time on a Mars trip will be spent in the 1/3 Earth's gravity environment on Mars, and either intermittent or continuous artificial gravity can be provided for the transit between planets (although at an engineering cost). The dosing of the gravity exposure (e.g. the level and duration), however, has not been established. Radiation protection also requires a balance between engineering cost and human health. Excessive shielding could add billions of dollars to the cost of a mission. Trips in interplanetary space, however, expose the crew to heavy high-energy particles from cosmic rays (HZE particles), which have a high linear energy transfer. This high energy leads to significant biological damage (e.g. chromosomal aberrations, cancer induction). A recent report from the Committee on Space Biology and Medicine notes that only one systematic study of cancer induction from high-energy particles has been conducted (using the mouse Harderian gland). Predictions of cancer risk and acceptable radiation exposure in space are extrapolated from minimal data. Other areas of physiology also present problems, such as muscle loss, cardiovascular deconditioning, and vestibular adaptation. Despite all the issues, however, a focussed, aggressive research program that uses the resources of the International Space Station should pave the way for mankind's greatest adventure--a trip to Mars.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Mars*
  • Osteoporosis / physiopathology
  • Physiology / trends*
  • Space Flight / trends*