Thursday, December 27, 2012

Travelling to another dot

(The world did not end on 21st December as widely expected so you are condemned to read more of my posts. My commiserations. But don't lose hope.)

In the Wodehouse novel 'Mike and Psmith', while  explaining the benefits of not getting up early in the morning, Psmith tells Mike:
"One of the Georges," said Psmith, "I forget which, once said that a certain number of hours' sleep a day - I cannot recall for the moment how many - made a man something, which for the time being  has slipped my memory. However, there you are. I've given you the main idea of the thing.
I find myself in the Psmith situation. I had read an article (I don't think it was by a George but then, it could have been one.) which had been about some people who had lived for some days (or weeks or months) in isolation, having no contact with the rest of the world during that period, and the psychological problems this produced. There you are. I've given you the main idea of the thing. I was reminded of this article when I read Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach which is about the technological, political and psychological challenges involved in sending a manned mission to Mars. Mary Roach writes:
To the rocket scientist, you are a problem.  You are the most irritating piece of machinery he or she will ever have to deal with. You and your fluctuating metabolism, your puny memory, your frame that comes in a million different configurations. You are unpredictable. You're inconstant. You take weeks to fix.  The engineer must worry about the water and oxygen and food you'll need in space, about how much extra fuel it will take to launch your shrimp cocktail and irradiated beef tacos.  A solar cell or a thruster nozzle is stable and undemanding. It does not excrete or panic or fall in love with the mission commander. It has no ego.  Its structural elements don't start to break down without gravity, and it works just fine without sleep.
People have been fascinated by Mars (including Mohammad Ali) for a long time but space travel is not the fun adventure that it is portrayed as in PR videos. There are plans to send 80,000 people to Mars but that is easier said than done. Apart from the various psychological problems, you have to deal with things like motion sickness, vomiting in helmets, excess gravity, low gravity, worry about the impact tolerance of the human body, deal with body odour and how to carry out many mundane activities.

Food for space has to be light and compact - every extra pound costs thousands of dollars to launch. It should not be crumbly because in anti-gravity, crumbs clog the controls or may get into some one's eyes. Astronauts have to drink recycled urine. They have to be specially toilet trained. If not careful, faeces may float around the spacecraft which is not a pleasant experience.Even the simple act of urination can, in the absence of gravity, become a medical emergency. And then there is religion:
Religious observations are even tougher in a real spacecraft.  Launch weight limitations forced Buzz Aldrin to pack a "tiny Host" and thimble-sized wine chalice for his DIY Communion on the moon.  Zero gravity and a ninety minute orbital day created so many questions for Muslim astronauts that a "Guideline of Performing Ibadah at the International Space Station" was drafted. Rather than require Muslim astronauts to pray five times during each ninety minute orbit of Earth, the guidelines allowed them to go by the twenty-four-hour cycle of the launch location.  Wipes ("not less than 3 pieces") could be used for preprayer cleansing. And since the orbiting Muslim who began his prayer while facing Mecca was likely, by prayer's end, to be mooning Mecca, provisions were made allowing him to simply face the Earth or "wherever." Lastly, instead of lowering the face to the ground, a trying manoeuvre in zero gravity, prostrating oneself could be approximated by "bringing down the chin closer to the knee," "using the eye lid as an indicator of the changing of posture" or - in the vein of "wherever" - simply "imagining" the sequence of movements.
The most interesting part of the book for me was a chapter describing an experiment where NASA observes volunteers who were asked to spend 3 months 24*7 lying on a bed. This was because during a trip to Mars, astronauts would have to spend about 6 months in a cramped space without much movement. For a couple of years after my stroke, I used to lie most of the time on the bed watching TV. I was aware that prolonged periods of inactivity causes some deterioration in bones and muscles but I didn't know that it could be so bad.

In 2 years, a paraplegic person could lose 1/3 to 1/2 the bone mass in the lower limbs,about the same amount that an astronaut could expect to lose on a 2 year mission to Mars. There is a very real danger that the bones of the astronaut may snap on returning to Earth's gravity. The best method for preventing bone loss is weight bearing exercise. In spite of the various ideas that have been tried over the years for dealing with bone and muscle loss, the best methods remain those that were available 40 years ago.

In spite of the perils, some astronauts are willing to go on a one-way trip to Mars with no possibility of return.These folks have incredible guts. The very thought of living in a cramped space for months on end far away from the earth gives me the heebie jeebies. (Does it have something to do with the DRD4-7R gene?) There have been suggestions of trying to see if humans can hibernate (like the folks of 'B'Ark) but the idea has never been pursued seriously because of ethical issues.

Finally, should so much resources be spent on sending a manned mission to Mars? Many reasons have been given in favour of space exploration. Neil deGrasse Tyson puts costs in perspective. As Mary Roach says:
The nobility of the human spirit grows harder for me to believe in.  War, zealotry, greed, malls, narcissism.  I see a backhanded nobility in excessive, impractical outlays of cash prompted by nothing loftier than a species joining hands and saying "I bet we can do this. "Yes, the money could be better spent on Earth.  But would it? Since when has money saved by government red-lining been spent on education and cancer research? It is always squandered.  Let's squander some on Mars.  Let's go out and play. 
Here is Mary Roach talking about her book at Google.

PS: A documentary on the case for Mars.

PPS: Bizarre space cases

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