Could entering stasis make space travel easier?

Exploration and space flight raise many questions. Whether on an economic or health level! For example, the crew of a ship that leaves Earth must expect physical and mental stress that has never been experienced before. Science fiction writers quickly found a way out of the long and dangerous period of interstellar travel. The stasis! Whether it’s closer to cryonics orhibernation, their purpose remains the same. Rescue the astronauts (and save the payload along the way).

The sauce took on so well that the image of capsules with deeply sleeping passengers became one leitmotif films of the genre. how Alien the eighth passenger by Ridley Scott (1979). On a more practical side, ESA (European Space Agency) teams have been working on the idea of ​​freezing for missions to space: The European Space Agency’s Overwintering (Torpor) Strategy for Space Missions: Linking Biology to Engineering (Neuroscience and behavioral testing, 01.10.2021). Where does reality end and where does fiction begin?

The hibernation pods from the movie Alien the Eighth Passenger.

Hibernation capsules for long space journeys

Cryonics starts from the premise that a sufficiently cooled body – below 0°C – could be stored indefinitely. Before he woke up in full possession of his abilities. However, the task seems almost impossible! “The formation of crystals, which is difficult to combat, would destroy the cells of the person undergoing this treatment,” agrees Fabrice Bertile, a CNRS researcher specializing in animal adaptation to environmental conditions. He was specifically consulted by ESA for his expertise on the effects of torpor on bears.

But what is torpor? This is an energy saving strategy used primarily by mammals. It allows these animals to survive times of scarcity and extreme temperatures. Entering torpor causes a metabolic slowdown associated with a drop in body temperature. “If this condition lasts less than 24 hours, it is called daytime rigidity. If, on the other hand, it lasts for days or even months, the appropriate term is hibernation,” the researcher explains. And why choose the bear? Because the Plantigrade has a mass and physiology relatively similar to that of a human, and its organs appear protected during its 5 to 7 month “rest”. In addition, its temperature drops only a few degrees from 37 °C to 33 °C.

Will we one day be able to see a man hibernate like a bear? “Not literally no, but it is possible to duplicate the benefits offered by the Plantigrade,” states Fabrice Bertile. Regardless of the species, the enzymatic and molecular equipment in the cells remains the same. It is therefore “sufficient” to fully understand and copy the mechanisms of action. At the moment, the human stage is still far away. And the only non-hibernating mammals put into a state of torpor were mice and rats. And only for a few days!

But the door remains open, according to the researcher: “Examination of Neanderthal bones indicates phases of solidification. More recently, pygmy lemurs in Madagascar have been found to bury themselves to overwinter. But they are primates like us! “. Female astronauts might have the privilege of using torpor on a space mission. The particular distribution of their fat stock and their reduced energy expenditure give them an advantage over males. But where would they sleep during the voyage? The ESA results suggest a quiet environment with little light. At a low temperature – below 10 ° C. And high humidity. So no caves, but protective capsules. Everything with monitoring and feeding of the organisms by an AI!

Better avoid premature rebirth!

Science fiction remains associated with the notion of cryogeneration. Very often they are frozen in the passenger capsules of a spaceship until they are reborn. “There is a strong symbolism associated with death. The capsules are fatally reminiscent of coffins and other sarcophagi, the last homes of the deceased,” introduces Gatien Gambin, a PhD student in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies whose dissertation topic it concerns The fictions of the room plan B.

In this idea, the ship reactivates the myth of Charon. It can be perceived as the modern bend of his boat crossing not the Styx but the immensity of the Void. It is probably no coincidence that the carrier of the film passengers (2016) is named avalon, like the mythical Isle of the Dead in Arthurian legends. So the end of stasis is like a second birth. But for the encapsulated to wake up, the stasis system still has to work properly…

“Failure often occurs at the beginning of fiction. It then represents the heart of the storyline and brings tension and suspense to the rest of the work,” explains Gatien Gambin. So it is in the short story by Philip K. Dick The Frozen Journey (1980), the inspired passengerswith “a failure of the thermal control system on board the ship”.

The unfortunate owner of capsule No. 9 therefore finds himself alone among the 60 passengers who are violently awakened, “blind and no longer feeling his body”. The movie characters Pandora (2009) they emerge frozen from their stasis and without any memory tokens. Another good point for the story! “The reason for their presence here, their premature awakening and the humanoid creatures that relentlessly attack them is a mystery,” adds the doctoral student. Questions that will only be answered at the time of the final result.

Capsule: protection or prison?

A capsule, cryogenic or hibernating, is initially thought of as a protective cocoon. But a cocoon that remains vulnerable to outside intruders. Lucky for the hero of the frozen journey, well aware of his fate. “I am still in cryogenic suspension and the ship continues to restore my distant memories. So that I don’t become psychotic through sensory deprivation.” So a rescue operation by the on-board AI that will be more or less successful…

In his novel A colony (2010) Hugh Howey envisions a colonization ship with 500 fetuses growing during their stasis. The idea? Take the opportunity to teach each of them a trade. And all the skills required for her arrival on the planet on her 30th birthday! But the opportunity to interact with the “sleepers” doesn’t always start with a good background. “The proof with the series raised by wolves since 2020, where members of a religious caste experience their spatial journey to another world and are at the mercy of their religious leaders,” says Gatien Gambin. Entering stasis ultimately requires blind faith in the crew or in the AI ​​responsible for watching over us during our long period of vulnerability… And be careful not to trust the wrong people! At the risk of the cocoon turning into a prison.

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