Hard questions for manned space travel buffs. The usually chipper Discover magazine gave its June cover to the grim topic "Are We Trapped On Earth?" a roundup of recent research on the hazards of long-term space travel by aerospace legacy MG Lord. The story is online now, and the catalogue of hardships is a regular frozen o-ring of bad mojo: solar flares, cosmic rays that can't even be shielded by lead, delta radiation; massive brain cell loss; astronauts coming down with shingles and cataracts; expired pharmaceuticals; and a whole lot more. Featuring a psychedelic brain damage trip with Fightin' Buzz Aldrin. Outside the protection of the Earth's magnetic field (less the South Atlantic Anomaly, or Brazilian Wax), such classic astrobiological challenges as zero-g nausea and bone tissue loss start to seem like kids' stuff.
Read the whole article. There's beaucoup NASA cooperation on this piece, and the space agency is now thumping the tub for bases on the moon and Mars, so the tone is one of can-do readiness. Many (though not all) sources look at all these challenges and declare, "With an armload of this stuff, I wouldn't be afraid of a supernova!" Possible solutions include speeding up spacecraft; sending up Space Cowboys so old nobody will miss them when they succumb; selecting astronauts with better genetic odds for radiation-resistance (a potential growth area for Hiroshima survivors and their descendants); and my favorite: genetically engineering mutant astronauts who can deal with it all. Most of the proposed solutions are pretty far out there (like the president's unserious and unfunded proposal to go to Mars); more important, they're far in the future. All of which supports my belief that for the time being space nuts, and particularly those who are not spending their own money, should focus on unmanned exploration. As always, contrary opinions are welcome.