Illustration: Nathan Kreuzman
Last one out turns off the lights: that’s how the movie Interstellar, from 2014, imagines the start of a crewed journey to a distant galaxy. Shortly after takeoff, the astronauts climb into special cold storage containers and into a precisely calculated stasis. It isn’t until years later, close to their destination, that the crew wakes up—bringing life back to the spacecraft. Now a company is setting about to try and make this vision from science fiction a reality.
It’s been 45 years since the last person set foot on the Moon, and the crew of Apollo 17 spent four and a half days underway before landing on our planet’s satellite. With the current state of technology, a trip to Mars would take much longer than that: about six months. The New Horizons space probe needed 9.5 years to reach Pluto. And beyond Pluto one could (theoretically) go much further.
Space shuttles are optimized down to the last detail, with every gram making a difference—to ensure provisions for, say, four people over the time span of a year is difficult, and for longer journeys nearly impossible. Which is why the company SpaceWorks suggests the cold-sleep method known as “therapeutic hypothermia.” The body is cooled to several degrees below the normal core temperature of 37 degrees Celsius. This process is already being used in medicine when treating patients who have had heart attacks or suffered traumatic brain injuries. The challenge for space flight, however, is that this sort of stasis can normally only be sustained for between two to four days. SpaceWorks engineers hope that this can be extended to several months.
The concept envisages some sort of cold storage containers in which a spaceship’s crew would take shifts going into therapeutic hypothermia. In contrast to the film Interstellar, one person would always be awake, able to react to any emergencies and also to wake the other astronauts out of their deep sleep.
SpaceWorks reports that initial animal testing will start next year, to be followed by studies with human subjects before the method can finally be tested on the International Space Station (ISS). But when exactly we’ll be able to travel into deep space this way remains in the stars.