Surgery in microgravity is possible and has already been been carried out, albeit not on humans yet. For example, astronauts have managed to repair rat tails and perform laroscopy – a minimally invasive surgical procedure used to examine and repair the organs inside the abdomen – on animals, while in microgravity.
These surgeries have led to new innovations and improvements such as magnetising surgical tools so they stick to the table, and restraining the “surgeonaut” too.
One problem was that, during open surgery, the intestines would float around, obscuring view of the surgical field. To deal with this, space travellers should opt for minimally invasive surgical techniques, such as keyhole surgery, ideally occurring within patients’ internal cavities through small incisions using a camera and instruments.
A laroscopy was recently carried out on fake abdomens during a parabolic “zero gravity” flight, with surgeons successfully stemming traumatic bleeding. But they warned that it would be psychologically hard to carry out such a procedure on a crew mate.
Bodily fluids will also behave differently in space and on Mars. The blood in our veins may stick to instruments because of surface tension. Floating droplets may also form streams that could restrict the surgeon’s view, which is not ideal. The circulating air of an enclosed cabin may also be an infection risk. Surgical bubbles and blood-repelling surgical tools could be the solution.
Researchers have already developed and tested various surgical enclosures in microgravity environments. For example, NASA evaluated a closed system comprising a surgical clear plastic overhead canopy with arm ports, aiming to prevent contamination.
When orbiting or settled on Mars, however, we would ideally need a hypothetical “traumapod”, with radiation shielding, surgical robots, advanced life support and restraints. This would be a dedicated module with filtered air supply and a computer to aid in diagnosis and treatment.