We'll Probably Have to Genetically Augment Our Bodies to Survive Mars

20 MARCH 2017

When it comes to space travel, there's no shortage of enthusiasm to get humans to Mars, with Space X's Elon Musk saying his company could take passengers to the Red Planet by 2025, and NASA being asked by Congress to achieve the mission by 2033.


But while making the trip could be technologically feasible in the next decade or two, are humans really physically and psychologically ready to abandon Earth and begin colonising the Red Planet?

Nope, not a chance, according to a recent paper by cognitive scientist Konrad Szocik from the University of Information Technology and Management in Poland.

Szocik argues that no amount of year-long Martian simulations on Earth or long-duration stays aboard the International Space Station (ISS) could prepare human astronauts for the challenges that Mars colonisation would provide.

"We cannot simulate the same physical and environmental conditions to reconstruct the Martian environment, I mean such traits like Martian microgravitation or radiation exposure," Szocik told Elizabeth Howell at Seeker.

"Consequently, we cannot predict [the] physical and biological effects of humans living on Mars."

In a recent article, Szocik and his co-authors discussed some of the political, cultural, and personal challenges Mars colonists would face, and in a nutshell, the team doesn't think human beings could cut it on the Red Planet – not without making changes to our bodies to help us more easily adapt to the Martian environment.


"My idea is that [the] human body and mind is adapted to live in the terrestrial environment," Szocik told Rae Paoletta at Gizmodo.

"Consequently, some particular physiological and psychological challenges during [the] journey and then during living on Mars probably will be too difficult for human beings to survive."

While NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko famously spent a year on the ISS – the ordeal was not without significant physiological effects and pains resulting from so much time living in space.

But those hardships would be much less than what travellers to Mars would experience, who would be making much longer journeys – and not knowing when or if they could ever return to Earth.

"These first astronauts will be aware that after the almost one-year journey, they will have to live on Mars for at least several years or probably their entire lives due to the fact that their return will most likely be technologically impossible," the authors explain.

"Perhaps these first colonisers will know that their mission is a 'one way ticket'."

The researchers acknowledge that inducing travellers into a coma-like state might make the voyage itself more bearable, but once they've arrived, colonists will be faced with an environment where artificial life support is a constant requirement – that is, until some far-off, future terraforming technology can make Mars' arid and freezing environment hospitable.

Until that happens, the researchers think that humanity's best prospects for living on Mars would involve some kind of body or genetic altering that might give us a fighting chance of survival on a planet we've never had to evolve on.

"We claim that human beings are not evolutionally adapted to colonise cosmic environments," the authors explain.

"We suggest that the best solution could be the artificial acceleration of the biological evolution of the astronauts before they start their space deep mission."

While the team doesn't provide details of what that would entail in their paper, Szocik told Gizmodo that "permanent solutions like genetical and/or surgical modifications" could make colonists capable of surviving on Mars in ways that unaltered humans can't.

According to NASA's former chief scientist for human research, Mark J. Shelhamer, while these ideas may be interesting and help further the discussion about what it will take for humans to adapt to Mars' environment, once talk turns to genetics, you run into a minefield of other potential issues.

"Already, people have suggested selecting astronauts for genetic predisposition for such things as radiation resistance," says Shelhamer.

"Of course, this idea is fraught with problems. For one, it's illegal to make employment decisions based on genetic information. For another, there are usually unintended consequences when making manipulations like this, and who knows what might get worse if we pick and choose what we think needs to be made better."

Those sound like pretty fair points – especially considering Szocik goes as far as to suggest that "human cloning or other similar methods" might ultimately be necessary to sustain colony populations over generations without running the risk of in-breeding between too few colonists.

Clearly, there's a lot to work out here, and while some of the researchers' ideas are definitely a bit out there, we're going to need to think outside the box if we want to inhabit a planet that at its closest is about 56 million km (33.9 million miles) away.

For his part, Shelhamer is confident that the right kind of training will equip human travellers for the ordeals of their Mars journey – and if current estimates on when we can expect to see this happen are correct, we won't have too long to wait to see if he's right.

"I think we can give astronauts the tools – physical, mental, operational – so that they are, individually and as a group, resilient in the face of the unknown," he told Gizmodo.

"What kind of person thrives in an extreme environment? What types of mission structures are in place to help that person? This needs to be examined systematically."

The research is published in Space Policy.