Many fairytales and legends feature a person being put into a long sleep, in some cases decades. With the advent of the scientific age, the idea of being able to put someone into a deep sleep in order for them to endure long space flights became popular. However, the complexity of human biological processes were not understood well enough to safely put someone to sleep for years and then bring them back to wakefulness with their health intact. A new company believes that they can develop suspended animation that really works.
SpacewWorks is a new company in the space industry. It’s website states, “SpaceWorks delivers advanced products and services to the space community. From hypersonic flight test systems and small spacecraft to aerospace software development and engineering services, SpaceWorks is focused on future flight and space exploration technologies.”
Spaceworks is proposing the use of a suspended animation system they call “therapeutic hypothermia.” In this procedure, the body is cooled to a little below normal body temperature which is ninety-eight point six degrees. This process is already used in medicine to give doctors more time to treat serious brain injuries or cardiac arrest. The body of the patient is lowered to between ninety degrees and ninety-four degrees Fahrenheit. So far, patients are only kept at the lower temperature for two to four days. However, there have been tests where a subject was kept at the lower temperature for up to two weeks. Spaceworks thinks that they can extend this lowered temperature state for months. They also believe that they can develop the technology needed to automate the process and apply it to deep space missions.
In depictions in novels and movies, suspended animation is carried out in individual pods. The system envisioned by Spaceworks would feature an open space where astronauts could sleep in shifts. There would be some robotic arms and monitoring systems to take care of the sleepers. There would be small transnasal tubes in their noses to assist in cooling and heating. This system would be lighter than other designs. Sleeping in shifts insures that there will always be someone awake to deal with maintenance and emergencies.
One big problem with suspended animation is the concern about muscular deterioration. SpaceWorks is considering a system which utilizes electrical stimulation of the muscles while the subject is asleep. There has also been work done on animal biochemistry to discover how animals can endure long periods of hibernation without muscular atrophy.
Being able to have some of the crew hibernating at any time would mean that the ship would have to carry less fuel, food, water and air than would otherwise be required. There is also the issue of dealing with the psychological impacts of depression, claustrophobia, or anxiety caused by boredom and close quarters of a long deep space. Allowing crew to sleep through a lot of the flight would help solve these problems. Spaceworks hopes to be able to begin animal testing next year.