How to get to Mars without going mad

The technological challenges involved in sending a crewed mission to Mars are daunting, but new research highlights the need to focus on the psychology of spaceflight to prevent world’s first Mars explorers arriving at their destination stark raving crazy.

A paper in the journal American Psychologist reviews the already extensive research done by NASA into the psychological trials that come with being an astronaut, and concludes that there is still a hell of a lot of work still to be done.

The central problem for would-be Mars travellers is that early missions will comprise a team of people confined in a tin can about the size of a small Winnebago for two or three years. During this time, communication with family and friends will be extremely minimal. Even talking to Mission Control will be difficult, given that signals to and from the craft will take almost an hour to arrive.

And that – say authors Lauren Blackwell Landon and Kelley Slack, both from NASA, and Jamie Barrett from the US Federal Aviation Authority – means teamwork and the ability to resolve both mechanical and personal issues without outside help will be essential.

“Although much is known about the underlying factors and processes of teamwork,” they write, “much is left to be discovered for teams who will be operating in extreme isolation and confinement during a future Mars mission.”

In their lengthy paper, the researchers run through the many bits of research being conducted by NASA and others into the psychological stresses inherent in long distance space travel. They conclude that none of them are wholly adequate – for the very good reason that there is no good way to simulate all of the factors that will be present when the first Mars mission takes off.

Life on the International Space Station (ISS), they note, provides in one sense the closest available approximation, but for several reasons it is not a particularly accurate one.

The ISS is in a low-Earth orbit, just 400 kilometres above the planet, which remains constantly (and gloriously) visible through a large observation window. The station is also a lot larger than any likely Mars vehicle, about the size of a four-bedroom house, which affords its occupants private sleeping quarters and several different environments.

Communication with Mission Control – and family – is instantaneous, permitting immediate technological assistance, medical advice and psychological counselling. 

In addition, the ISS is frequently restocked with food and personalised care packages, there are plenty of available distractions (such as playing David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ for a YouTube audience of millions, for instance) and, in the event of something going awfully wrong with the hardware, the ability to evacuate safely is ever-present.

None of these niceties will be available during a 225 million kilometre journey to the red planet.

To try to assess just what stresses will arise under proper voyage conditions, NASA’s psych team has been monitoring astronaut participants in experiments that involve long periods of team isolation in restricted environments. One of these is called HERA, and is a spaceflight simulator located at the Johnson Space Centre. Another, called HI-SEAS, is an enclosed facility on top of the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii.

Simulated missions last for between 45 days and a year, during which time crew members are put through their paces doing scientific research, conducting ever-variable emergency drills, and basically coping with each other’s personalities. To further enhance the experience, communication with outside agencies, such as Mission Control, involves an artificially induced long delay.

Despite the best efforts of NASA’s designers, however, these trials lack a couple of very important elements. 

For a start, they necessarily take place in normal Earth gravity. Perhaps more importantly, however, the participants all know in the back of their minds that they are, indeed, still on their home planet and that in the event of something going really, really wrong, a bloke wearing overalls and brandishing a spanner will be at the door to rescue them in a matter of minutes.

Such comfort, of course, will be entirely absent once a Mars mission leaves the ground and shoots upward – and will remain absent for years.

For this reason, the researchers say, NASA’s mission simulators “fall short of field analogues on factors such as degree of real danger”.

Landon and her colleagues conclude that much more research and experimentation is required to fully explore the impacts of extreme isolation on potential Mars astronauts, and that much of this needs to involve finding strategies to ensure teamwork remains robust over long periods of time.

“More scientifically rigorous research and development of training and countermeasures are required to ensure that the remote, highly autonomous spaceflight team is able to maintain teamwork skills throughout a mission lasting two to three years with reduced support from Mission Control,” they conclude. 

Please login to favourite this article.