What do we do if astronauts get sick on Mars?

Scott Sutherland

We're years off from landing anyone on the planet Mars, and it will be even longer before we are able to bring anyone back from such a journey, but NASA is already mulling over what we should do in case anyone who goes there should get sick and need to come back to Earth for help.

We've been finding plenty of evidence lately that Mars could have supported life in the past, and life here on Earth may have even originated there in the first place. We haven't found anything there yet, but there's at least the possibility that tiny microorganisms could be living in places we haven't explored yet. If there is something there, it could just be waiting for the chance to take up residence inside the bodies of the first humans to arrive, and this could give the intrepid explorers anything from the sniffles to a deadly infection.

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Even if we put aside the science fiction scenarios, not only will humans on Mars have to be very careful to avoid exposure to the perchlorates there, but the germs the astronauts and colonists bring with them could end up being their downfall. Their tight living conditions will be it's own problem when it comes to staying healthy. Also, studies have shown that low gravity can make germs tougher, and sometimes more infectious and deadly, while at the same time, it makes a person's immune system weaker. The zero-g trip there could give the germs enough of a boost to make them a problem, but Mars' gravity is only about a third as strong as Earth's. That could be enough to turn any germs the astronauts bring with them into dangerous or deadly bugs.

We can screen the astronauts before they leave and make them keep close track of teir health while they're gone, but if anyone does get sick, what do we do? Consulting with a doctor back here on Earth could be frustrating, given the time it takes for messages to travel back and forth between the two planets, but what if the person needed to come back to Earth for treatment?

NASA already had policies in place when the Apollo missions returned from the moon, which would definitely need to be updated for any missions returning from Mars, but there has been some thought put into all of this already. At the moment, it's all in fairly general terms, or it's specifically about robotic missions bringing back samples from the Red Planet, however even last year, when there was talk of beaming Martian DNA back to Earth, biologists had already considered the level of quarantine we'd need to prevent a dangerous infection from spreading.

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It'll be some time before any of this needs to be practical, but for an interesting example, we can turn back to science fiction for the time being. The upcoming scifi thriller The Last Days on Mars deals with a team of astronauts on Mars who become infected by something they find there (you can watch the trailer here). Since it's a thriller/horror movie, it'll likely play up the absolute worst-case scenario for effect, but to be fair, if we're really going to think about these things, that's exactly the kind of scenario our plans would have to be able to handle.

(Image courtesy: Inspiration Mars Foundation)

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