If you've been following news from the International Space Station, you've probably noticed that extended exposure to weightlessness can have deleterious effects on Astronauts' health. This is one of the main problems NASA and the world's other space agencies would like to find a solution to before we start sending people on really long-term missions, like, for example, a mission to Mars. So far astronauts aboard the ISS have been following a rigorous daily two hour exercise routine during which they use elastic cords to substitute for gravity. Even with all of this time and effort expended, all astronauts still suffer from bone loss and muscle atrophy. Many of them also experience problems with balance and coordination. The bottom line is that the standard exercise regimen for astronauts aboard the ISS isn't solving the problems created by micro gravity. But some MIT scientists are working on a possible solution to this.
What, you may be wondering, is the big deal? We've all seen science fiction. Just make the space station, or whatever ship you're going to send people to Mars in in the shape of a wheel, and spin it. Centripetal force creates artificial gravity. Problem solved, right? Well, not exactly.
If you were going to have astronauts in an artificial gravity environment all the time and not get disoriented by a difference in the amount of artificial gravity between their feet and their head, you'd have to have a really big wheel, somewhere around half a mile from side to side. This, obviously would massively increase cost, as well as the amount of stuff you have to get into orbit, both things every space faring entity is constantly working to decrease. And let's not forget the fact that you have to work out a whole new set of physics problems in terms of building the wheel and keeping it spinning, all of it adding exponentially to the cost. Also keep in mind the fact that the ISS was built with the express purpose of being a micro gravity testbed. So if you built it in the shape of a wheel, you'd have to either have a part of it that was isolated from the wheel part, or just have two space stations, any of which would increase weight and size and complexity and therefore, you guessed it, cost. So, what about having just a part of the ISS that had a centrifuge in it that astronauts could spend some time in, say a centrifuge module? Well, there was a centrifuge in the original plans for the ISS, back when it was just going to be an american station called Freedom. But as freedom morphed into the ISS, the centrifuge module was cut due to cost considerations. There was a more recent plan for Japan to build a centrifuge module that would be incorporated into the ISS, but, guess what happened to that. That's right. You guessed it: budget cuts.
So, what's a space agency to do? Find out tomorrow in part II of this article.