A PASSENGERS-Like Torpor Seems Possible, and NASA Is Already Funding the Research

The catalyst for the plot of Passengers, which kicks off when Jim ( Chris Pratt) wakes up from a torpor facing a lonely 90-year trip aboard an interstellar spaceship, stems from the presumption that when it comes to long-distance space travel, hibernation of the crew will be hugely beneficial. But the technology that would allow people like Jim and Aurora ( Jennifer Lawrence) to make a 120-year journey in hibernation—or even a six-month trip to Mars—is still in nascent stages. The research, however, is moving ahead, and making interplanetary human stasis a reality seems to come down to three things in the near-term future: severely injured people, the Edible Dormouse, and pigs.

In the film, over 5,000 people are placed into hibernation—a word that seems to be interchangeable with terms like “torpor,” “human stasis,” and “suspended animation”—aboard the Starship Avalon. The goal is for all on board to travel in such a state for 120 years until arriving at “Homestead II,” a planet that orbits another star. But hibernation for that kind of trip raises a lot of questions: What would being hibernated for 120 years feel like? How would humans cope physiologically and mentally? And how insanely bad would we have to whizz once awoken? A glimpse at Jim’s hibernation pod from Passengers. Image: Columbia Pictures

Dr. John Bradford, PhD in Aerospace Engineering, COO of the aerospace company  SpaceWorks, as well as a pretty big Star Trek fan, served on a scientific panel in support of the film. In a recent interview with Nerdist, he shed some light on how close we are to achieving the kind of scientific breakthroughs needed to make a Passengers-like journey a reality. And as of right now, it seems that most of the research on the subject of long-term hibernation has either been studied by looking at nature’s own creations, or conducted only when a person has sustained a life-threatening injury.

“If you have an unfortunate incident, traumatic brain injury or cardiac arrest,” Dr. Bradford said, “in many cases when you arrive at the hospital, they [will] cool your body temperature down about 10°F and… basically leave you in [an] unconscious-type state for anywhere from two to four days to a couple of weeks.” What Bradford is describing here is known as Therapeutic Hypothermia (TH) or Targeted Temperature Management (TTM). So far TH has only been used in severe medical cases, like the ones described by Dr. Bradford, in order to “ reduce the risk of tissue injury following lack of blood flow.” But even though TH has only been induced for medical reasons, it still demonstrates that a person can go up to 14 days with their body’s metabolic rate reduced by 70%.

A simulated look at one of SpaceWorks’ potential Therapeutic Hypothermia set-ups. Image: SpaceWorks

But 120 years is obviously a challenge on a whole different scale from a couple of weeks. When it comes to making interplanetary hibernation a reality in the near-term, even a single year is too much of a stretch anyway. Right now, a more realistic, yet still far-off, goal concerns missions to Mars, which will be on the months-long scale.

SpaceWorks has received two rounds of funding from NASA to do preliminary research for hibernation on Mars missions, and Dr. Bradford seems optimistic that the technology isn’t too deep in the realm of sci-fi. “We’re trying to advance from what’s well understood at the level of days—or fairly well understood—going to potentially weeks, and ultimately we want to get it to months…” Dr. Bradford emphasized that the goal of SpaceWorks’ hibernation endeavor is not to extend life, as it is in the film, but rather to help with cutting down on resource usage (food, air, water, etc.) during the “transit phase” from Earth to Mars (or Mars back to Earth).

In terms of ideas on how to execute human stasis during a transit phase from Earth to Mars, Bradford said that the animal kingdom yields some pretty spectacular examples from which to draw inspiration; the pinnacle of which is the Edible Dormouse, or what is essentially the Disney version of a rodent. Dr. Bradford says that the Edible Dormouse can remain in hibernation for up to 11 months, during which time its metabolic rates drastically decrease. It may even “ cease breathing altogether for periods [of] up to an hour.”

The Edible Dormouse looking Disney AF. Image: Wikimedia / Michael Hanselmann

Testing non-urgent TH on humans, certainly on the months-long scale, still seems like a leap the aerospace sector isn’t quite ready to make, though. And that’s where the pigs enter the picture. “Pigs are a great surrogate and are oftentimes used [for testing]… because their anatomy and scale tend to do very well in terms of translating results,” Dr. Bradford said. He added that pigs are the reason scientists were able to develop Therapeutic Hypothermia for medical purposes in the first place. Which means when it comes to literally saving lives right now, and possibly developing a robust form of hibernation for future space travel, we can thank pigs for saving our bacon.

In terms of saving Jim and Aurora from space-drowning and space-explosions, that’s a whole different boat of space-problems. But as long as everybody else’s hibernation pods continue to work, they should all get to Homestead II feeling youthful, maybe a little sleepy, and probably excited with the thrill of living on a new planet and also finding out where the spaceship toilet is.

What do you think about interplanetary or interstellar space travel and the use of hibernation? Would you let yourself enter suspended animation for years on end only to wake up and find out that The Winds of Winter still hasn’t been released? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Images: Columbia Pictures

Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence talk Passengers and robot bartenders

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