In science fiction, whenever people aboard a spaceship don’t have a wormhole or a teleporting chamber nearby, they simply get in their cozy little cryosleep pods and take a nice, long nap. Although the technology allowing full cryo-preservation is still a long ways off, recent technological and medical development has allowed NASA to begin developing the initial stages of such technology.
Engineers and scientists are collaborating with NASA and other aerospace organizations to develop a sort of “suspended animation” project, to be used for launches to Mars and beyond. Astronauts would be placed in an artificially induced coma for weeks or months at a time in a state called torpor. An astronaut’s body temperature would be lowered from the normal 98° F (36.7° C) to 89-93°F (32-34°C). A core-body-temperature-reduction of only 10°F (5.7°C) would be required to obtain a staggering 50-70% reduction in metabolic rate. A neuromuscular blockade would be administered to the person inside the cryosleep pod to prevent accidental movement and suppress their natural shiver reflex. Using Total Parenteral Nutrition (TPN), an aqueous solution containing all minerals, vitamins, and amino acids, cryosleep pods would be able to sustain their hosts for the entire duration of their ‘hibernation’. If any problems arise within the cryosleep chamber, an ‘emergency wake’ protocol would also be implemented to avoid any severe damage to the astronaut within the pod.
Such a cryosleep chamber could also keep out harmful radiation and reduce harmful microgravity exposure, which would be even more deadly due to longer durations of space travel. Cryosleep pods would also give architectural benefits, including massive savings compared to current reference architectures, and smaller, easier-and-cheaper-to-launch spacecraft, due to smaller space requirements for astronauts.
Nevertheless, however great cryosleep pods might seem, there are still hurdles to overcome before the technology is ready. For example, medical issues such as bone loss and muscle atrophy due to the limited nutrients administered from TPN, long-term organ sedation due to the neuromuscular blockade, and a risk of potentially contracting pneumonia might ensue. Other technological hurdles would also need to be overcome, such as a risk of veering off-route due to limited – or no – manual control of the spacecraft; everything would need to be automated.
Cryosleep will be the technology that powers most – or all – future space travel, and with NASA and other companies working on developing said technology, we’re now one step closer to a new era of space exploration.