It’s hard to anticipate every health problem that might occur on a trip to Mars, which could span years. But NASA is trying. It has a list of 100 conditions or events that are most likely to happen during spaceflight, including pancreatitis, lumbar spine fracture and lost fingernails due to ill-fitting spacesuit gloves.
And the agency has highlighted 23 particular health risks of long-duration space travel that require further work to mitigate before a crewed spacecraft takes off for Mars in the 2030s (NASA’s schedule) or sooner (Elon Musk’s schedule).1 But nine of these risks are currently considered “red,” i.e., they have both a high likelihood of happening — defined as greater than a 1 percent chance of occurring, and high stakes (i.e., death, permanent disability or long-term health impact) if they do: space radiation, visual impairment, cognitive or behavioral conditions, the long-term storage of medications, inadequate food and nutrition, team performance issues, in-flight medical conditions, user issues with onboard technology and bone fracture. These are high priority and “really have to get worked out” before we go to Mars, said William Paloski, director of NASA’s Human Research Program, though he adds that space exploration is inherently risky and volunteers will have to be aware of all known risks, red or not.
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