Intended for healthcare professionals


Life on Mars

BMJ 2016; 353 doi: (Published 13 April 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;353:i1643


Sheyna Gifford tells Anne Gulland how she became the first doctor on the red planet

Anne Gulland

Sheyna Gifford has an unusual claim to fame—she is the first doctor ever to work on Mars. Not the planet Mars, of course, but Mauna Loa, a volcano in Hawaii, whose dusty, rust coloured landscape is probably the closest on earth to the red planet. She is serving on the Hi-Seas programme, a mission run the University of Hawaii and funded by NASA, whose purpose is to simulate a three year voyage to Mars and back.

Since last August Gifford and six other scientists have been living in a 1000 square foot solar powered dome, which they rarely leave. The project is treated as a real mission to Mars so the crew have all the supplies for their year long stay and, because of the time delay between Mars and Earth, they cannot speak to the outside world. They can, however, communicate by email.

The art and science of treating healthy people

Gifford began her career as an astrophysicist before training as a neuroscientist and then a doctor specialising in expedition medicine. However, she always hankered to return to her first love of space and, realising that there’s no such thing as a residency in space medicine, she applied to become a simulated astronaut.

Gifford says space medicine is the “art and science of treating healthy people and keeping them healthy.”

“Most of what I do is preventive care such as watching the crew’s weight and blood pressure. We do have some issues with the extra vehicular activity suits and gloves—people get rashes from them and they fall and slip on the lava. This will happen on any expedition to the Arctic or the Himalayas and it will also be a problem on Mars,” she says.

The only time that the crew would be able to acknowledge that they are not actually on Mars would be if one of them were to have a life threatening injury or illness, in which case Gifford would dial 911.

She can treat sprains, strains, burns, and minor to medium lacerations but says that one of the most challenging problems would be treating pain.

“I could relocate a dislocated joint but treating ongoing pain would be difficult. My kit includes basic over-the-counter medicines and some lignocaine [lidocaine] in case I need to do any sutures. I also have some medical support on the ground as they have on the International Space Station,” she says.


Another challenge is the professional isolation, says Gifford. “Medicine was not designed to operate in a vacuum and it isn’t until you’re alone that you realise how much doctors talk to each other. As much as I like being out in the field and operating on the edge I like to do so in the company of other physicians. It would be hard to be the sole doctor on Mars but there’s no other solution—we’re never going to send two doctors into space because it’s so expensive,” she says.

Like the rest of her crewmates Gifford is also conducting research on everything from caffeine consumption to how leisure activities impact on stress levels. Previous Hi-Seas missions—this is the fourth and the longest—have studied how much astronauts need to exercise, what kinds of food they should bring, and how to recycle food waste. They have also looked at how much social interaction people need.

Microgravity and the basics of medicine

While landing on the real Mars has its attractions, Gifford says that not enough is yet known about the effects of the microgravity—very weak gravity—that astronauts would experience on the nine month journey to the planet. Earth has about two and half times the gravity of Mars and, unless there is some way of having some gravity on the journey, explorers will be landing as invalids and unable to function, she says.

“By the time the first explorers get to Mars they will have experienced muscle atrophy, loss of bone density, and increased cardiovascular load as all the fluids in the body gravitate upwards and the heart assumes a balloon-like configuration. They will also experience increased intracranial pressure as well as suffering headache and backache,” she says.

Gifford says she will wait until this problem is overcome before she books her ticket to the red planet. For the moment, she is happy to have been one of the first doctors to practise space medicine in the field.

“As the only doctor I’ve had to get back to the basics of what medicine is really about: looking, listening, feeling, asking, watching, and waiting. It’s an honour, a privilege, and an excellent exercise in good medical practice,” she says.

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