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Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Former astronaut visits Western, discusses travel to Mars

Is Mars Possible?

Well, the answer to that question right now is no.

With the technology the U.S. currently has, humans would not be able to make it to Mars, according to former astronaut Wendy Lawrence.

Lawrence, who has spent about 50 days in space, came to Western’s campus Thursday, Oct. 20 to give a talk called “Destination Mars: Challenges of Sending Humans to the Red Planet.”

“Getting to Mars and landing there is going to be an incredibly challenging thing,” Lawrence said.

There are two significant challenges that are keeping humans from landing on Mars; radiation and microgravity, Lawrence said.

The problem with radiation is that as humans are sent to space, every cell nucleus is going to get hit by protons or a secondary electron every few days, which means that the human body is bombarded by space-based radiation as they are put on a spacecraft,  Lawrence said.

“We still do not understand the effects of space based radiation,” Lawrence said. “Really the only way we have right now to understand those effects is to study the people who have been exposed to it.”

The second problem faced is microgravity, which is fun but can cause major health concerns.

“Getting to Mars and landing there is going to be an incredibly challenging thing.”

Former astronaut Wendy Lawrence

Before astronauts even get to space, they experience fluid shift, Lawrence said.

“We are lying on our backs for about two and a half hours,” Lawrence said. “That starts shifting all of the fluid that is normally into our legs back up into our chest and our head.”

Fluid shift has a huge impact on body water content, vision, bone density and plasma volume.

Microgravity can also impact muscle mass and strength, so much that U.S. astronauts now have an enforced workout routine: one and a half hours a day, six days a week.

While these issues are keeping them from landing on Mars, there are also other issues that astronauts deal with on a daily basis.

One big issue is the psychological impact that living in space can have.

When NASA first started putting people in space they did not put much emphasis on the care and feeding of crew members, Lawrence said.

Junior Aidan Hersh found this to be the most interesting topic of the lecture.

“I liked [learning about] the psychological effects because that’s something that you don’t really think about that much,” Hersh said. “You think about muscle loss and bone density loss, but not the importance of food and other things that we take for granted while on Earth.”

For sophomore Connor Garrels the most interesting fact he learned was about radiation and how much of it astronauts traveling to Mars would be exposed to.

“An entire round trip would be almost one sievert or radiation and that one sievert was a 5 percent increase in radiation,” Garrels said.

Sophomore Dillon Kilroy, also found the conversation about radiation to be his favorite part of the event.

“The presentation was a lot more technical than I thought it was going to be, and it wasn’t really [about] topics I ever thought of,” Kilroy said.

When we think about space travel these are just a few of the issues that astronauts have to deal with, but for Lawrence it was all worth it.

“Little kids always ask what do you do for fun. Do I play video games? No. I look out the window. I get to watch the world go by, and it’s never disappointing.”

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