Human hibernation is the stuff of fairytales. Is it also the key to space travel?
As winter approaches and thoughts turn to the dark, frigid days ahead, we may fantasize about hiding somewhere and waking with the crocuses in March. Hedgehogs, ground squirrels and bears do it—bedding down for months in musky burrows. Hibernation sounds appealing, but aside from the obvious benefits of not having to arrive at work before sunrise and dodging snow-shoveling duties, it would not be very pleasant. During hibernation, core temperature drops, systems slow and the body gradually exhausts itself—hardly a restful way to pass the season.
The human hibernation of popular culture misses this point entirely. In the Brothers Grimm version of Sleeping Beauty, the princess wakes fresh-faced and cheerful after a hundred years of slumber. Rip Van Winkle stirs from his 20-year snooze, in Washington Irving’s 19th-century yarn, with a stretch and a nose for breakfast. More recent fiction presents human hibernation slightly more realistically—and unpleasantly—in long-distance space travel. In 2001: A Space Odyssey three scientists heading to Jupiter lie sealed in white sarcophagi, only to perish as the malevolent shipboard computer shuts down their life support. Space travelers in Passengers and Interstellar lie insensate in similar hibernation pods, prepared to emerge as the curve of some distant planet fills the portholes.
Yet in reality, human hibernation would probably look more like the torpor of ground squirrels than the technological entombment of space fiction. Claude Piantadosi, an expert on space survival, points out that a major aim of inducing hibernation would be to reduce cargo. Having astronauts fuel up before leaving would achieve this most efficiently. A hibernating traveler outbound to Mars would metabolize only 8½ pounds of stored fat during the seven-month journey, saving 550 pounds in food, water and oxygen. But like any other hibernating mammal, an astronaut would need to move around occasionally to prevent atrophy of muscles, bones and brain. Space sarcophagi would hinder both of these goals: not only are they heavy, they severely inhibit movement. Comfortable, well-monitored berths would serve the hibernating traveler better.
However it happens for enchanted princesses or space travelers, we humans aren’t going to sleep through the winter. So we’ll get up early and we’ll shovel the snow, but we’ll also need to find ways to enjoy the dark and the cold.
Photograph:Peter Purdy/BIPs/Getty Images