Hints that water may lie not far beneath the Martian surface, and indicators of past and maybe even present life on Mars, have spurred new calls for a manned mission to the Red Planet. Laurence Young’s all for it. In fact, he was an advocate of Mars expeditions long before the current fervor emerged. But the faculty member is also head of a university consortium – the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) – that’s focused on some eminently practical concerns, like how to get Mars explorers safely to and from the planet.

Take the issue of gravity, or the lack of it. If you spent nine months en route to Mars – a reasonable estimate, unless some exotic transport scheme turns out to be feasible – and you didn’t do anything to compensate for weightlessness, “you’d be a jellyfish,” says Young. “Your skeleton would lack structural integrity. Your muscles would be so wasted away you wouldn’t be able to hold yourself up in your space suit – and that’s true even though Mars is a lower-gravity environment than Earth. You’d also be sick, and probably in tough shape psychologically.”

But there’s hope these and other health-related barriers to a Mars expedition are surmountable. And Young, Apollo Program Professor of Astronautics, is leading efforts to surmount them.

Inspired by Sputnik

The faculty member has been in love with space exploration most of his life. It started with the world’s first satellite. Young, just out of MIT, was crossing the Atlantic for a year of graduate work in France when he heard about the pioneering craft.

“The ship’s teletype carried a report that the Russians had launched a satellite called Sputnik,” recalls Young. “I thought it was fantastic, and I started to imagine all the different things that could be done in space.”

The traveler scrapped plans to join Bell Labs after his year abroad. Instead, he decided to return to MIT and work with the legendary Charles Stark Draper, who would later oversee creation of the navigational systems for the Apollo moon flights.

Draper headed what was then the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, now Draper Laboratory. “He paid for my doctoral thesis out of an instrumentation fund he controlled,” notes Young. “Later, he recruited me to help start the first aerospace biomedical program at MIT.”

Over the years since, Young’s had some notable accomplishments. He was the lead researcher on some of the first biomedical experiments aboard the Space Shuttle. He was selected as a payload specialist – an astronaut with special responsibilities – for a later shuttle flight, though in the end he wasn’t picked to fly. His studies of how to improve the interface between humans and instruments have helped shape the design of air- and spacecraft. But his toughest challenge yet may be making interplanetary travel safe for humans.

Multiple dangers

It’s a big task because we aren’t designed for life in the hostile environment of space. One reason is radiation. Solar flares can touch off cascades of damaging subatomic particles that are easily able to penetrate a spacecraft’s shell. The streams of high-energy charged particles that flood through space are also a serious threat.

The main danger posed by these invisible intruders is a heightened risk of cancer and other genetically linked ailments. NSBRI researchers are probing whether cancer preventive agents can help. “They’re concentrating on a drug called tamoxifen, which is already being studied as a means of preventing breast cancer,” says Young.

A more immediate threat is the weakness and related problems that result from weightlessness. Young and his colleagues are working on what they hope will be an all-but universal antidote.

Their solution is an artificial-gravity device. A small but highly sophisticated version of a merry-go-round, the device would also include a built-in exercycle. As the astronaut worked out, the whole system would rotate about 20 times a minute.

“I call it a spin in a gym,” notes Young. “The idea is that as the device spins, it creates artificial gravity. Meanwhile, you’re also exercising, which stimulates the cardiovascular system, the muscles and the bones.”

The faculty member and his colleagues hope to test the system on a future shuttle flight. At this point many hurdles remain to be cleared, but the faculty member says he’s reasonably hopeful the problems posed by weightlessness can be solved within a decade or so.

For Young, it’s obvious that the quest to make space travel safe is of more than scientific interest. During his two years of astronaut training, he experienced at first-hand much of what space travel is all about.

“Even though I didn’t fly,” he says, “I was a member of the crew. I not only knew the people in space, I knew the equipment intimately. I also knew everything about the experiments that were going on, so if someone asked me this or that, I could give them an answer.”

Having been so closely involved – and knowing so many astronauts and others in the space program – he has a stake in making sure future space explorers are safe. As for future destinations, Young also has personal feelings on that score. “I wouldn’t be involved in this work,” he says, “if it weren’t about exploring Mars.”