September 23, 2006 | David F. Coppedge

Mars Radiation Would Fry Astronaut Brains

Imagine the first Martian astronauts coming home confused, impaired and demented. This is the risk from solar radiation on Mars, say a group of NASA medical researchers (see RxPG News).

Among the gravest risks of a manned flight to Mars ranks the possibility that massive amounts of solar and cosmic radiation will decimate the brains of astronauts, leaving them in a vegetative state, if they survive at all.

Dubbed “Risk 29” by NASA’s Mars scientists, the cosmic radiation risk remains a show-stopper because shielding a spacecraft from all radiation could make it too heavy to reach Mars, which, at its closest, is 38 million miles from earth.

The kinds of radiation astronauts could be exposed could be like that from a nuclear disaster, one of the researchers said, because, “The sun is basically a big nuclear reactor.” Though we are much closer to the sun, we are “shielded on Earth by the atmosphere and the Van Allen Radiation Belts” which Mars lacks.

Incidentally, James Van Allen, who discovered these life-saving belts around Earth, passed away last month at the age of 91 (see JPL press release). He was the last survivor from a famous 1958 photo showing three space pioneers holding a replica of the first US satellite, Explorer 1, high overhead in victory at a press conference. Alongside him were William Pickering and Wernher von Braun.

Movie scriptwriters never bring up these problems on Star Trek and all the other space thrillers. Fact is, it’s a shooting gallery out there. High-energy particles would rip into our flesh constantly were it not for our protective bubble here on God’s green earth

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