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What Goes In Our First-Aid Kit For the Mission to Mars?

The Translational Research Institute is a new, independent research group look to push the boundaries of our health in space.

You know that moment when you're in the middle of a trip that you've spent weeks, or months, preparing for and you discover that one thing you wish you had packed but didn't? Maybe it's painkillers, or an umbrella, or your swimsuit; there's always something.

Now imagine that happens when you're in the middle of an eight-month, 140 million-mile spaceflight to Mars, and the thing you forgot to pack could save your life.

NASA, of course, does a lot of research to make sure this won't happen, but there's a lot to consider when planning extended human spaceflight. Lack of gravity is an obvious factor, but so is a lack of space, an absence of waste disposal, and radiation. That's why a new, independent group of researchers—with funding from NASA—has emerged, to help figure out this puzzle of what to pack for a trip to Mars, particularly when it comes to the First Aid kit.

The Translational Research Institute is a partnership between the Baylor College of Medicine, the California Institute of Technology, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It just published its first-ever call for proposals, and is prepared to fund $2 million worth of research on taking all of the medical advancements we've made on Earth, and figure out how to convert them for space travel.

"Clearly NASA is working on that as well, but we want to use a different approach," said Virginia Wotring, the deputy director and chief scientist for TRI, and a space medicine researcher at Baylor. "We want to take a more innovative, disruptive kind of approach than NASA is able to risk."

This first call for proposals challenges researchers to tackle a number of important health hurdles. They range from how can we grow fresh produce in space, to how to perform emergency surgery in microgravity, to finding a way to preserve muscle mass without making astronauts work out for hours every day (the current countermeasure). In the future, Wotring told me TRI wants to look into the mental health impacts of prolonged space travel, and how different genders and ethnicities are impacted by the stressors in space.

NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg performs a test for visual acuity. Image: NASA

Some of the simplest medical questions become big problems with the added complexity of spaceflight. Taking a painkiller for a headache, for example, gets difficult when most medication has a shelf life of 36 months or less and you're on a multi-year mission to Mars (or beyond), and the pills have degraded due to radiation.

"A lot of things we take for granted about how we do lab work are difficult problems to solve when you start putting these constraints on them," Wotring said. "It's obvious you're working in microgravity, but in addition to that, you're inside a closed container. Any power you use has to be generated on board. Any consumables you need, you have to carry with you and that means there's mass and volume associated—the smaller the better because it's not unlimited space. You can't have anything that makes a terrible smell or toxic chemicals because you can't open a window."

But Wotring said that the goal of TRI is to elicit creative approaches to these problems from researchers who might never have considered how their work could benefit spaceflight. Without the constraints of NASA, they can be more flexible with the kinds of proposals they accept, and that will hopefully open the door to creative solutions.

"When we interact with the medical community or the biomedical industry, we see really amazing innovation: medical devices, techniques, and technologies that could be adapted to treat crew members in spaceflight," Wotring said. "But the people who develop these products are completely unaware of the issues of spaceflight. We want to bring in more of the big wide world."

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