"Cryo-sleep", food printers and Star Trek drives: NASA turns sci fi into reality

A technology to let astronauts "sleep" their way to Mars is just one of 12 proposals which could become reality thanks to a new NASA program which, “aims to turn science fiction into fact.”

When Sigourney Weaver stirs from her icy "cryogenic sleep" in Aliens, she awakens into a futuristic world where vast spacecraft carry humans to distant worlds.

But a technology to let astronauts "sleep" their way to Mars is just one of 12 proposals which could become reality in the near future -  thanks to a new NASA program which, the space agency says, will "turn science fiction into fact.”

A “fusion drive” designed to help small spaceships explore our solar system is eerily like Star Trek’s Impulse drive - and a “3D food printer”  is rather like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s Nutri-Matic (but rather more alarming).

Each technology has received funding from NASA - one of 12 ideas funded by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) programme this year.


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"We're working together to transform the future of aerospace while investigating new technologies that may one day benefit our our lives here on Earth,” said Michael Gazarik of NASA.


Sigourney Weaver in Aliens (Rex)Cryogenic Stasis Tubes (Aliens)

When Sigourney Weaver’s character Ellen Ripley drifts in space in “stasis” she emerges from her tube unharmed, and not having aged a day - thanks to “cryogenics” cooling her body down.

Astronauts travelling to Mars would not go into this sort of “deep freeze” - instead, medical devices would introduce “torpor”, a deep sleep where people’s metabolic rate would drop. This would enable Mars missions to use far smaller capsules - which could be easier to launch.


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“A means for full cryo-preservation and restoration remains a long way off still. However, recent medical progress is quickly advancing our ability to induce deep sleep states over extended periods of time,” says NASA.

The Starship Enterprise (Getty)Impulse Drive (Star Trek)

Star Trek’s “Impulse Drive” - the fusion-powered system which the Enterprise uses to steer through solar systems (as opposed to the “Warp Drive” Scotty turns on for longer jaunts through the stars) could become reality - allowing “ a radical improvement in our ability to explore destinations across the solar system and beyond,” according to NASA.

The problem, of course, is that scientists have to harness the power of the hydrogen bomb to do it. “Fission-ignited fusion systems have been operational – in weapon form – since the 1950’s,” NASA says, “Leveraging insights gained from the weapons physics program, a Z-Pinch device could be used to ignite a thermonuclear deuterium trigger. The combined energy release from fission and fusion would then be directed using a magnetic nozzle to produce useful thrust.”


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The engines would be small, simple, and efficient - and far faster than current fission engines. One fusion  “drive” under investigation at the University of Alabama-Huntsville would allow people to travel to Mars in just 12 weeks. 

Arthur Dent (Rex)Nutri-Matic (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)

When Arthur Dent hitches a lift into space with Ford Prefect, he’s disappointed to find that drinks are dispensed by a Nutrimatic machine which creates a substance that is “"almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea".

But NASA is investigating a 3D printer that could not only print out food - but also living flesh, which could be used for transplants. If an astronaut lost a body part, the printer could “secrete” cells to replace it - which sounds frankly nightmarish, but NASA are keen.

The printer would create 3D arrays of cells using Martian atmospheric gases and rocks - to create everything from organic to “novel, biologically derived materials not previously possible to fabricate.”

“Imagine being able to print anything from tools and composite building materials to food and human tissues,” the space agency says. “Imagine being on Mars with the ability to replace any broken part, whether it's a part of your spacesuit, your habitat, or your own body.”

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