The third day of the first Asgardia Space Science and Investment Congress (ASIC) focused on issues that are key to the development of the Space Nation, namely, protection of human crews in space. Tried and tested best-practices and promising new approaches were tackled, including bold ideas like hibernation, something scientists say humans should be as good at as bears

The science studying preventative treatment of space-related disorders is less than half a century old. In 1970, Soviet cosmonauts Adrian Nikolaev and Vitaliy Sevastyanov returned to Earth almost literally ‘falling apart’ after a then record-breaking 17-day orbital spaceflight. That was the turning point for cosmonaut health protection, leading to the creation of a solid scientific base in the form of the Institute of Biomedical Problems (IBMP). 

Dr Elena Tomilovskaya who represented IBMP at ASIC, shared what ISS astronauts do to prevent their bodies from deterioration.

They have to work hard. And a lot. Daily workouts with compulsory use of electronic stimulators and pneumatic vacuum suit (a compression garment torturous to wear)

‘On Earth, ground-based microgravity models are used to study the body’s response to zero gravity,’ Tomilovskaya said. ‘Parabolic flight is one of the ways to simulate microgravity, but it lasts less than a minute, and can’t be used to study the long-term effects.’

Thus, scientists use dry immersion which is an immersion into a bath filled with warm water, with a rubber sheet over it, for the test subject to be in the water without getting in contact with it. The longest period of time spent in such a bath was 56 days. The experiment was held in the 1970s. Today, the same experiment usually lasts 5 to 7 days, but recently, when the procedure was used to study microgravity effects, the 10 healthy volunteers participating spent 21 days in such baths.

Which means that studies aimed at learning to minimize space impacts on humans require that not only cosmonauts in orbit suffer, but also ordinary people who have to get into those special bathtubs. And still, not all the issues are resolved. Everyone has seen TV reports showing astronauts and cosmonauts helped out of modules and led under the arms upon landing after 6 months on the ISS. According to Mark Shelhamer, another venerable speaker at first Asgardia Science and Investment Congress (Shelhamer led a human research program at the Johnson Space Center), NASA is now seriously concerned with solving the problem of bodily degradation during spaceflight in the wake of the planned crewed expedition to Mars. When the spacecraft touches down on the Red Planet, no one will be waiting to help the crew get out and hold them under the arms as they walk. The solution for this is known. We need artificial gravity units.

'Gravity provides static orientation and real-time dynamic movement information. Without these inputs, changes in controlling the eyes, the head, the arms, problems with posture and the entire musculoskeletal system appear,' says Shelhamer. 'Upon returning to Earth, even after a six-month flight with regular training, people manifest significant changes in sensory performance.'

Gravity issues are not the only danger space explorers face. For long-distance flights, radiation is critical. The rather unusual solution proposed to solve this is cybernation, or synthetic suspended animation humans can be put in (so far, only in theory) for the whole duration of their long journey. This solution is being tackled by Walter Tinganelli, head of the clinical radiobiology department at the GSI research company. Dr Tinganelli says that winter animals that hibernate naturally have shown a considerably higher resistance to radiation as compared to summer animals.

Humans too can go into artificial hibernation - at least there are grounds to suppose this based on the experiments on mammals that by their nature do not fall into suspended animation. According to Dr Tinganelli, synthetic human hibernation not only serves the purposes of deep space exploration, but can be used for medical purposes.

The scientist showed a draft of a Mars-ready module that can carry 3 hibernating astronauts. They will need much less food, they will not have negative psychological effects, and their bones will not be strongly demineralized due to a slowed metabolism.

And it’s technically easier to protect a person sleeping in one place from radiation than a much larger living environment of an awake, active pilot.

Dr Tinganelli's report, as well as presentations by the other Asgardia First Science and Investment Congress participants,  once again highlighted the central idea that made people travel to Darmstadt to attend the Space Nation's event.

This idea is simple: all issues arising on humanity's way to space are solvable. All it takes is will and action. And this is what Asgardia stands on.

The first Asgardia Space Science and Investment Congress (ASIC), held in Darmstadt, Germany, October 14-16, brings together scientists, aerospace industry specialists, and investors to discuss solutions to make humanity’s future in space possible. To ‘Pave the road to living in space,’ we need solutions to overcoming cosmic radiation, learning to live in artificial and lunar gravity, and, most importantly, human children must be born, and grow up, in space. The Congress also addresses topics like life support systems, space tourism, energy harvesting, recycling, human performance, commercial space transportation, space physiology, new materials, space architecture, counter measures, astrobiology, water and oxygen supply, space debris, and space weather.

Ivan Cheberko