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So I have a really long space-flight section of my story with all necessary requirements for preserving the crew is in place (hypersleep etc.)

But one thing went into my mind with preserving other necessary products like food and best of all... Medicine.

All medicines have expiration dates, From regular cough syrups to antibiotics. Pure sugar like Dextrose, Carbs like Glucose and electrolyte packs.

Is there a way that we can "preserve" medicines in a long space-flight? How would it be stored and how would it affect the medicines quality if so? Are there limits?

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    $\begingroup$ What medicine are you talking about? There isn't one singular handling standard that is appropriate for every medication. Discussing every possible handling protocol is too broad an ask for this site. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Commented Aug 28, 2022 at 1:44
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    $\begingroup$ What research have you performed? There are reasons for long-term medication storage here on Earth. Spaceflight doesn't make it special. A 5-second Google search reveals entries for doomsday preppers to pharmaceuticals. Research before asking on Stack Exchange is appreciated. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Aug 28, 2022 at 1:47
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    $\begingroup$ @sphennings Please define "too broad" to the OP, because "too much" is entirely subjective and the varies depending on who you ask. There aren't two million answers to such a question, more like a few hundred, a dozen, possibly less. On the other hand, saying something is "too broad" literally has a million different interpretations. Be more specific. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 28, 2022 at 13:15
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    $\begingroup$ @sphennings I'm just saying, that it's a perfectly good question. Of course the OP won't specify what medicine needs to be preserved! It applies to all medical products. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 28, 2022 at 16:00
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    $\begingroup$ If you can preserve the human body, you can probably also preserve anything that would be inside the human body for the same duration. That would include all the sugars you mention, and it's a fair bet that the same tech would preserve medicines as well. $\endgroup$
    – N. Virgo
    Commented Aug 30, 2022 at 11:13

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This requires a combination of approaches

Medicines and their components vary, so your spaceship will need several approaches to preserve them all.

  1. First, knowing what a real expiration date is vs a "Please throw this perfectly good item out and buy a new one" date is important to know. A pack of pure sugar isn't going to rot if it's stored in a cool, dry place with a reasonably air resistant lid, but don't try this with a banana.

  2. If a medicine is made from multiple components, storing each separately and making the medicine when needed can also help in some cases. Knowing the manufacturing methods of each component will also allow some of those to be brought along as more easily stored sub-components.

  3. Separating the medicine (or components) into smaller sub-packages is a good idea. If 5 kilos of the very important "Medicine Component A" is more than enough for your mission, a single 5 kilo cannister could spill, get lost, or get contaminated. A pair of 2.5 kg cannisters stored in 2 separate areas of the ship, each containing multiple smaller packets, will greatly reduce the risk of losing it all to a single unfortunate incident.

  4. Dehydrating or freeze-drying can greatly extend the shelf life of many materials.

  5. Most items last longer at lower temperatures, but are a few that can't handle freezing. For those that can, colder is usually better. Interstellar space is VERY cold. If this is an in-system mission, shaded areas in space are very cold. If you land some place like Mars, a -100C freezer is a good thing to get installed quickly.

You also mentioned food. Much of the above applies to food, but there food has a major complication beyond chemical components in medicine, bacteria.

Aerobic and anaerobic bacteria are the bane of long term food storage. Canning (really just boiling and sealing up away from bacteria and oxygen) was a big step towards reducing the problem, but isn't perfect.

Check out shelf-stable milk an military rations. Those are typically done with ultra high temperature processing and the containers are multi-layered to keep out oxygen.

A more effective method to sterilize food is food irradiation. One of the drawbacks of the irradiation process is that vitamins also get degraded to some extent. Because of this, if irradiated food will be a significant part of the diet, vitamin supplements become a very good idea.

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  • $\begingroup$ @Trioxidane - I did bring that up manufacturing from components when needed in point #2, but I think you've phrased it more clearly. Recycling components is a great idea, since a number of them could be recovered (hopefully the crew is well past the "Ick!” factor of extracting useful chemical from human waste products). $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 28, 2022 at 4:18
  • $\begingroup$ Apologies. Don't know how I read over that part. Double checked it, but my tired head missed it. $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    Commented Aug 28, 2022 at 7:29
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    $\begingroup$ Regarding 1 and 3, "best before" can often be translated as "we're, really, really sure it will last this long," with a buffer thrown in for lawsuits. So on-board testing capability might help to verify if a lot is still safe to use. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Commented Aug 28, 2022 at 13:36
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    $\begingroup$ Radiation protection would also be useful for prolonging life and I would store a supply of vitamins and essential fatty acids in a similar storage area. Many pharmaceuticals would benefit from cryogenic storage to prolong their life and for those that can't be frozen constant refridgeration. $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Commented Aug 28, 2022 at 17:25
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    $\begingroup$ Just to add to your first point: I used to work in a QA chem lab for a huge pharma company making OTC analgesics, and with each batch of product made there were 100's of tablets put in "retention" and tested for active content and degradation product every year/few years. If memory serves, I think the pain killer everyone takes lasted for about 25 years in a retention room (SATP, I don't think any more temp controlled than surrounding offices) before the active ingredient decomposed to below the minimum active content. Can't remember for deg products, but if the active isn't degrading much... $\endgroup$
    – Daevin
    Commented Aug 29, 2022 at 15:26
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You already answered your own question, whatever hypersleep is.

Put the medicine in whatever the people are put in, if you have the technology to preserve a living human body indefinitely storing simple biological compounds should be easy. a human body contains millions of different biochemical compounds, if the tech can preserve all of those insitu then there is no biological compound they cannot preserve.

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    $\begingroup$ Looks like OP forgot to mention what is hypersleep. $\endgroup$
    – veir
    Commented Aug 28, 2022 at 14:24
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The biology route:

Medicines come from a variety of sources. Most of them organic. At least 118 drugs are based on natural sources: 74 percent come from plants, 18 percent from fungi, 5 percent from bacteria, and 3 percent from vertebrate species such as snakes or frogs (Ecology Society of America, 1997). Vaccines are also made using organic material. So, instead of carrying around large amounts of perishable medicine, why not take the primary producers with you?

If plants are your primary source of medicine, then you only need the seeds of those plants. Seeds in good condition and stored properly will last at least one year and, depending on the plant, may last two to five years. The plant that holds the record for the longest dormancy is a lotus that was sprouted in 1995 from a seed that radiocarbon dating estimated to be a whopping 1300 years old. Store all kinds of seeds, then plant them to replenish the stocks every few years. This way, you only need to have one or two plants growing in the ship at any time.

Bacteria can also be used in the same way, and unlike plants they multiply orders of magnitude faster. Gene editing can also be used make the whole system more efficient. Fewer species to store among other things.

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It's possible... in a sci-fi setting!

Honey

Now, you must have felt weird seeing honey here, but hear me out! When you asked for something that doesn't expire, two things came to my mind: honey and salt. They're not medicinal but they are my answer to your question. Hopefully, you are open to new sci-fi ideas.

1. Synthesizing Honey-like Chemicals

But first, I have a request to tweak some of your rules to your sci-fi setting. Add something like "Company A discovers a method of making lab honey!" Then "Behaviour of Hostile Environment for Microorganisms can now be transferred from honey to chemicals possible!" Long story short, your sci-fi has the technology to imitate honey, because honey doesn't expire, and that's what you are aiming for.

Take note of these factors that make honey... immortal!

One. They contain extremely low amounts of water. Microorganisms need water to survive, and medicines aren't known to contain water so feel free to ignore this detail.

Two. Honey is acidic. Microorganisms just won't survive in an extremely acidic environment with few exceptions of course. The optimal pH level for microorganisms to live is somewhere neutral, ranging from pH 5 to 8, and acids are less than 7. That being said, alkalines are higher than 7 and are also not safe for microorganisms. In summary, your medicines must be either highly acidic or alkaline. There is one contradiction though. They are not safe for consumption. You gotta do some magic like dipping them in an additional acidic or alkaline component that doesn't mix with them but can be combined and completely separated afterward just as how not all solvents are compatible with all solvents. Or turning medicines into highly acidic or highly alkaline first then adding a solvent to increase or decrease their pH levels to their safe level for human consumption. It is up to you!

Third. It's not a matter of scientific reasoning but mere intuition only so don't take this seriously. They are in liquid form. It always bugs me why honey is liquid. It was never mentioned at all but I believe it's the main factor as to why it doesn't expire. So you gotta turn your medicines from solid to liquid form which is a contradiction from the #1 which is extremely low amounts of water. Thankfully, water is not the only solvent, but you have to think of yet another universal solvent for this.

2. Not all medicines are ingested. Some are for external use only. a room for salt therapy

This answer doesn't require the magic of modifying your world settings, but one that doesn't suffice your demand for a mystical ingestible medicine. Long story short, external medicine cannot expire. Salt, alcohol, bandages, and guess! Honey! Unfortunately, such items are limited and so are their applications.

3. They don't expire. They die though.

Bacteriophage

Okay, this is my worst answer because I'm just finding a loophole and ignoring the point of "unlimited shell life". Yes, you fight fire with fire, using a virus to fight the bad bacteria and cancer cells, and it's a thing! You don't need to tweak the rules of the world but the said bacteriophage is only experimental for now as we speak, so you might want to add something like " We managed to program viruses for our cause of curing cancer! No side effects! Promise!" And "Authorities of Health warns pharmaceuticals of unpredictable viral mutations." Long story short, these alive medicines do not have a shell life, just a demand of unlimited food.

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  • $\begingroup$ Liquidity is unrelated to shelf life. In fact honey does crystallize over time. $\endgroup$
    – toolforger
    Commented Aug 29, 2022 at 11:24
  • $\begingroup$ That's why I said it's just my guess, not scientific info. $\endgroup$
    – veir
    Commented Aug 29, 2022 at 16:25
  • $\begingroup$ You may want to edit the answer to remove the guess ;-) $\endgroup$
    – toolforger
    Commented Aug 30, 2022 at 9:17
  • $\begingroup$ ...no thanks. I'm keeping it there. $\endgroup$
    – veir
    Commented Aug 31, 2022 at 19:34
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Basically, you can't.

If the spaceship required a store of medicinal compounds for treatment of various problems the crew might have, short of using whatever super freezing method they use on the crew themselves or having entirely new treatments for illness that don't require our current hodgepodge of medical knowledge, the spaceship's AI would require an automated laboratory and a greenhouse as well as large stockpiles of certain basic chemicals and substances, to maintain a store of finished medication (a pharmacy) at all times. So it would need energy and labour to have this maintained, the labour likely provided by automation and/or robots, the mental labour by a computer, and the energy by whatever energy source the ship uses - antimatter reaction or fusion are the most common two in SF.

Now it's certainly possible to have medicine that effectively 'never' loses potency, and some modern treatments involve substances like that. However others do chemically lose potency over time for various reasons. With more effort in production, that length of time could be lengthened, or even circumvented. But for a fully stocked pharmacy of today's medicines, you would need a production facility on the ship that continuously produces and replaces (and recycles) them.

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