Lifelong fans of sci-fi (like me) tend to see a handful of unrealized technologies pop up in stories again and again. Some, like faster-than-light travel, are essentially fantasy—or so far from our current capabilities that they might as well be.
Others, like cryogenic sleep, help storytellers keep their “realism” bonafides by conceding that some laws of physics just won’t be broken.
The tech goes by many names: stasis, artificial hibernation, suspended animation, hypersleep, cryogenic sleep, etc.
Science fiction uses it a lot. Even non-sci-fi fans are familiar with the concept. So many movies, so many people wearing stylish underwear in transparent tubes.
I have yet to see the technology paired with full-length flannel pajamas.
My favorite depiction comes from the final shots of Alien (1979), in which Ripley and Jones the cat go into cryogenic sleep together. Just adorable. Bonus points of having the cat be the only other survivor of the entire crew.
Hollywood hasn’t tired of cryogenic sleep yet. We even got a big-budget film that revolves entirely around the concept, 2016’s Passengers.
These depictions of cryo-sleep aren’t driven purely by plot logistics. Cryo gets our characters to their deep space destinations, yes, but it also lends dramatic meaning to their stories. Entering into cryogenic sleep for decades or more means giving up any hope of seeing Earth again as you remember it; the place might be unrecognizable (or gone) when you wake up.
So why do it? What kind of person is so driven by the chance to explore the undiscovered that they choose the death of everything they know?
And what does a cryogenic sleep chamber really look like, anyway?
Ok, so we aren’t going to Alpha Centauri any time soon. Even Pluto is NINE years away in our fastest spacecraft.
But we might go to Mars. That’s only six months. To this end, NASA is helping to fund the efforts of SpaceWorks Enterprises in developing cryogenic sleep. The process under study involves lowering the body’s core temperature and then using sedation to prevent its natural defenses against cold from activating.
Something similar is already used in many hospitals. “Therapeutic hypothermia” is sometimes employed in cases of traumatic injury to allow the body extra time to heal.
Reality, as usual, will be less clean than in the movies. Most films show hibernating space travelers in little transparent pods with no physical attachments. But SpaceWork’s artificial hibernation uses transnasal tubes for cooling and warming and IV lines for supplying nutrients.
Oh, and the whole “no aging” thing? SpaceWorks’ artificial hibernation doesn’t fix that problem either—you age as you go. It makes space travel comfortable, not perfect.
But it’s fun to think about. And it’s going to be great for the 11-year-old girl who wants to sleep for 24 hours as part of her truly inspired/insane bucket list. She can do so much better now.
I’m not personally interested in joining any interplanetary trips, but throw in some on-demand lucid dreaming, and this six-month sleep thing starts to look pretty good.
So what do you think? Ready for your transnasal tube, sexy underwear, and a six-month journey to Mars? Imagine all the TV shows you’ll have to catch up on…
*I mentioned Jones from Alien and got so nostalgic about the little orange survivor that I decided to use only pictures of him. Forgive me. I like space-traveling hypersleeping cats.