Experts and visionaries such as Elon Musk (SpaceX) envisioned a trip to Mars in the near future. Knowing medicine and healthcare both as a physician and The Medical Futurist, I believe the biggest obstacle to reach this goal is not rocket technology. Improving medicine with the help of digital health technologies is actually a bigger challenge than rocket science (no offense to physicists) itself in astronautics.

You need bold, inspiring and a little crazy plans if you want to go to Mars

On 27 September, Elon Musk, CEO of the SpaceX rocket company aroused hope in astronautics again for the greatest pleasure of the fans of space flights. He promised no less than to take humanity to Mars.

Speaking at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, he unveiled a mission architecture that is bold, inspiring, and a little crazy. The cornerstone of the plan is the Interplanetary Transport System. A 55-foot-wide pod-shaped spaceship designed to carry 100 people or 100 tons of cargo, which would ride into orbit on a huge rocket. The spaceship could eventually make the journey from Earth to Mars in 30 to 80 days, according to Musk.

Musk hopes the two could take off on a journey to Mars in as little as 10 years. He acknowledged though that timeline depends on a lot of factors.

Elon Musk Colonies on Mars - Digital Health

Space travel has serious health risks

I followed Musk’s brilliant and inspiring speech online and I got really excited about his vision. His words rang in my head for the next couple of days, and I started to think about the realities of the mission to Mars. Usually, just as Musk did in his speech, experts and visionaries in astronautics concentrate on spaceships, rockets and the physics of getting to the Red Planet or orbiting in space. However, as The Medical Futurist, I am 100 per cent certain that the biggest obstacle in reaching Mars and installing the conditions of life there is the current state of healthcare and medicine.

In spite of Musk’s bold statement, currently a trip to Mars takes around seven months, which is only a little longer than the time astronauts spend on the International Space Station. However, counting their mission, orbit around Mars, landing, and then returning safely to Earth, the journey might take several years.

Spaceflight has a serious effect on astronauts. Variations in temperature and radiation levels, motion sickness, losing bone and muscle mass despite doing exercises, disruption of vision and taste. All of these cause health issues, not to mention the psychological consequences of space travel. Musk did not hide that travelling to Mars is dangerous. The probability of death is quite high on the first mission, he said.

mars digital health technology

But how can we decrease the hazards – first of all health and biological risks – of space travel?

Here, I specify the three biggest areas of digital health technologies without which the Mars mission is simply impossible.

1) Finding The Most Skilled And Healthy Astronauts

Being an astronaut requires special physical and psychological conditions, as well as unique capabilities to endure extreme conditions and stress.

a) Virtual and Augmented Reality Training

Lately, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) started to extensively employ virtual reality to better acclimatize its astronauts to conditions they will experience once they step across the Earth’s boundaries. NASA’s VR lab trains astronauts first of all for the experience of spacewalking – outside of the International Space Station (ISS). In the lab, every segment of the ISS is modeled in a complete way; with all cables and components. So, when an astronaut wears a combination of a headset, haptic feedback gloves and motion trackers he or she can perform a virtual spacewalk, grab objects and explore the space station in detail.

Another important development in NASA’s immersive training is the setup’s collaboration with Microsoft in an augmented reality endeavor code-named as Project Sidekick. It involves the use of Microsoft’s HoloLens, the world’s first unconnected holographic computer which enables for its wearer to witness and interact with holograms in high definition while also listening to them in surround sound. Sidekick will utilize HoloLens in order to facilitate communication between astronauts and their ground staff.

Another project of NASA involving the HoloLens is OnSight. It pertains to using the headset’s augmented reality properties to connect scientists and engineers with the environment of Mars using a feed from the Curiosity rover.

With these projects and tactics, NASA and the ground staff can actually prepare astronauts for the conditions awaiting them in space or on Mars – so they might alleviate the psychological effect space travel could have on people.

NASA and HoloLens - Digital Health Technologies for Space Travel

b) Mining Genomic Data Could Help Prevent Diseases

Since astronauts won’t have access to proper healthcare for years, knowing what major health risks the Martian astronauts carry within themselves would be highly beneficial, indeed, even necessary. A full genome sequencing, assisted by microbiome tests and other lab markers, will let physicians partially predict what major diseases they will probably encounter in their lives and what they can do to try to avoid most of them. This includes what diet to choose based on the types of bacteria they live with and what lab markers to regularly re-check to catch a disease before it would develop. It also includes nutrigenomic guidance which promotes certain types of food based on the astronaut’s genetic and metabolic background.

By measuring all other available parameters and vital signs, we should be able to assess their health and strength (physical, emotional and cognitive) properly. In such a way, not only the psychological, but also the physical and cognitive abilities of the astronauts could be preserved for the long run and health risks might be reduced permanently.

Genetics - Digital Health Technologies for Space Travel

2) Making Sure Astronauts Reach Mars Alive

I cannot stress enough the importance of human health in space travel, as you already know that based on our current knowledge and medical technologies in use today, the survival rate might converge to zero with regards to travelling to the Red Planet. But how could we improve the percentage?

a) Thin Body Sensors Measure Everything

On a trip to Mars, one of the most significant issue is the amount of cargo. Without tiny sensors that can measure every important vital sign and health parameter, crew members will not be able to make medical decisions. Currently available wearables and health trackers are unfortunately too big, get discharged quickly, and are difficult to work with. Astronauts cannot rely on them. Digital tattoos and implanted microchips could do the job without the active participation of astronauts. Japanese Professor Takao Someya, as well as the MC10 Company has been developing such tattoos.

Digital tattoo - bioterrorism

b) The Real Medical Tricorder From Star Trek

A working tricorder inspired by one of my favourite series, Star Trek could bring about a new era in medicine. Instead of expensive machines and long waiting times, information would be available immediately. Physicians could scan a patient, or patients could scan themselves and receive a list of diagnostic options and suggestions. Imagine the influence it could have on measuring the health of astronauts in space!

A high–power microscope with a smartphone, for example, could analyse swab samples and photos of skin lesions. Sensors could pick up abnormalities in DNA, or detect antibodies and specific proteins. An electronic nose, an ultrasonic probe, or almost anything we have now could be yoked to a smartphone and augment its features. Although we already have some examples from real life (Scanadu Scout, Viatom CheckMe), there is still a long way to go until we can use a tricorder during space travel. So let’s speed up development to make it happen as soon as possible!

Star Trek Tricorder - Digital Health Technologies for Space Travel

c) Artificial Intelligence Should Get Into Space

You already know that humans cannot live without artificial intelligence in space from the iconic Stanley Kubrick movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Well, it is exactly the case in real life. No matter how sophisticated body sensors and wearables become, measurements will not help day-to-day issues without smart algorithms. Astronauts will have delayed contact with Earth, and they cannot have all the skills of an experienced physician, researcher, and data analyst, thus smart algorithms have to do it for them. This will help them get the most out of each day to exploit the theoretical limits of efficiency.

d) Telemedicine For Healing In Space

As you could already hear it from Neil deGrasse Tyson, huge distances and delays in communication create tremendous problems in astronautics. As the inter-space is at least 54.6 million kilometers between physicians on Earth and the crew on Mars, high quality communication with specialized caregivers on Earth has to be an essential part of their care. Although the distance will still make it tricky, from time to time, communication with a real doctor will be absolutely necessary.

While the future of smart algorithms/tiny sensors in healthcare is bright, and should be even brighter regarding space travel, human supervision will still be a crucial part of making sure they are on the right track. InTouch Health is a good example, which might also develop services for space travel in the future.

Distance - Digital Health Technologies for Space Travel

e) New Food Technologies

How can we make sure that astronauts have enough food in space and they eat exactly the amount, quality and kind of food their organisms would like to have? The solution involves food scanners and 3D food printers.

In the future, food scanners will be able to tell how many grams of sugar a piece of fruit contains, or what the alcohol percentage of a drink is. Also, with the development of genetic testing, dietary recommendations could be made based on the information contained in your genes. There will be 3D food printers using fresh ingredients and create pizza, cookies, or almost any kind of final products just like what Foodini does these days. Imagine how well these brand-new tools might be used in astronautics…

Food in Space - Digital Health Technologies for Space Travel

3) Keeping Astronauts Healthy To Establish A Colony On Mars

As you already have seen it, it is a huge challenge to even get one person alive to the Red Planet. But imagine that we reached the point where Matt Damon was not only able to arrive to Mars in the movie, The Martian, but also in real life. How can we make sure that he stays alive or even starts a colony with the other lucky ones not having died during travelling to the planet?

Martian - Digital Health Technologies for Space Travel

a) The Plaster For Almost All Sores: 3D Printing

As astronauts will be alone and cannot bring all the supplies for a lengthy stay on the Red Planet. They will need printers that can print out medical equipment, prosthetics, and drugs on demand. Bringing the ingredients for these, and printing out what is needed on site, makes more sense than bringing a few types of equipment and drugs which could only help under limited circumstances.

The lucky ones staying alive on Mars could establish manufacturing by designing printers that can print out other printers. Thus, the whole idea of 3D printing will be essential. It has been shown that customized prosthetics can be printed out and some forms of medical equipment. Last year, the FDA just approved an epilepsy drug called Spritam that is made by 3D printers. It prints out the powdered drug layer by layer to make it dissolve faster than average pills. The basic examples are already here or trends seem to be pointing into this direction. So the future is looking bright.

b) Exoskeletons Might Be The Most Reliable Helpers Of Humans

Lifting huge weights and working tirelessly for long hours will be must-have features on Mars, as astronauts will need to build a base camp. As exoskeletons get thinner and more comfortable, the crew on Mars will use them as frequently as the first astronauts used screwdrivers. Exoskeletons today can already let paralyzed people walk again; let soldiers not get tired of walking for hours or even run faster and jump higher. As long spaceflights weaken their muscles no matter how much they try to exercise in zero gravity, exoskeletons could supply them with the lost strength.

Exoskeleton astronaut

c) Engineering Life On Mars

Astronauts will need to be able to partially engineer life on other planets – as unfortunately we have not found the signs of life anywhere else but Earth.

Here, by life, I mean bacteria, yeast, and even their own immune system if needed. The new genome editing method, CRISPR, could play a major role here. Systems involving engineering bacteria to produce hormones, antibiotics, or other materials would allow them to use nature as a manufacturing device – even to filter water or create the desired atmosphere. Community labs currently available in California and the iGem competitions have demonstrated in what a wide range of situations bioengineering can offer solutions.

A team of students at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark also have a plan to grow food, medicine, and tools in space using genetically engineered bacteria. It means that a culture of a special type of bacteria will harvest Martian sunlight and produce sugar. Then another type of bacteria will digest that sugar and then produce whatever it has been engineered to produce. The bacteria might generate vitamins or any other digestible materials and bioplastics that could be 3D printed into any form, including the forks and knives that will be necessary in order to eat the space spaghetti. How amazing is that?

We should conduct more and more experiments and projects like that if we truly want to establish a colony on Mars in the future.

ISS plant - Digital Health Technologies for Space Travel
A young sunflower aboard the ISS

d) Surgical Robots Might Operate Astronauts On Mars While Commanded From Earth

It is almost inevitable that astronauts will need to undergo surgery also on the Red Planet. Anything can happen to them.

Currently, surgeons control surgical robots that perform big operations through a control panel. The movie Prometheus featured a surgical robot capsule that can perform the whole operation on its own. The Mars generation will require an invention somewhere in between. And it should be developed pretty soon! Surgeons on Earth could pre-plan every step, and the robot could perform those steps while being supervised with the time delay digitally. The daVinci robot and the one developed by Google and Johnson&Johnson are good examples.

Surgical Robots - Digital Health Technologies for Space Travel

I agree with Musk, when he said, getting to Mars would be an incredible adventure. “It would be the most exciting thing that I could possibly imagine. Life needs to be more than just solving problems every day. You need to wake up and be excited about the future, to be inspired and want to live.”

Nobody wants the Mars mission to succeed more than I do. But I firmly believe that digital health is lagging behind rocket technologies and astrophysics. We need the companies in the forefront of innovation to acknowledge this and invest into digital health too. And then we can do what humanity can do best: keep on discovering. The infinite cosmos as well as the tiniest particles within us.

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