Mental health strained by mock Mars mission

They were six of the most resilient astronauts around. But trapped in a room for 17 months on a simulated voyage to Mars, their minds began to crack. Are we too fragile for life off-planet?

Twelve months have passed since you last saw the Sun. You are trapped in a tiny room with only five other people for company, while phone calls are stunted by a twenty-minute delay on the line. Your food is freeze-dried and all you have for entertainment is a collection of films, video games and books.

This is not a description of life in a remote prison or bunker, but the day-to-day experience of an astronaut hurtling through space. Far from the glamorous, fast-paced voyages depicted in science fiction films, life off-world can in fact be be monotonous, lonely and dull. And according to a new study, these conditions could be a major barrier to our chances of travelling to other planets.

In the study, six astronauts were locked in a room for 17 months in conditions that mimicked those of a potential Mars voyage. Though their capsule did not move an inch from its ‘launch’ on a Moscow industrial estate, this was the most accurate simulation yet of a long, manned journey into space.

For the first few months, the astronauts coped well. But gradually, without natural light to guide them, their sleep patterns started drifting in odd directions. One shifted onto a 25-hour day and grew out of sync with his comrades; others simply slept for hours more than they would on Earth. The subjects indulged in 700 hours more sleep in the second half of their voyage than they did in the first.

This is a serious concern, since disrupted sleep could ruin a crew’s coordination. But it was not the only problem: one crew member became distracted and unable to focus, while another developed depression. Of the six subjects, four encountered major psychological issues.

Surviving on other planets could pose just as much of a psychological challenge as life on a spaceship. On Mars, for instance, the days are 37 minutes longer than here on Earth – which might not sound like much, but could cause serious disorientation.

No place like home

Many people believe that the problems with space travel go beyond boredom and body clocks. Humans are creatures of Earth, they say: this is the planet that made us who we are, and it is folly to believe that our fragile minds can survive without its nurture. We should stop dreaming of life among the stars, they say, and instead learn to appreciate the many wonders of our beautiful home.

Sentimental nonsense, say others. Smartphones, alarm clocks and underground trains would no doubt have caused mental distress to a Stone Age human; but we have adapted to these ‘unnatural’ conditions, and we can do so again. Early space pioneers will need to be resilient and strong, and there will be risks – but that should not deter us from exploring the final frontier.

You Decide

  1. If you had the chance to go on a 17-month voyage to Mars with five strangers, would you take it?
  2. Will humans ever be able to adapt to life on other planets?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are an astronaut in space. Write a diary entry that describes your daily routine and conveys the mental strain you are under.
  2. Using what you have learned about life in space, design a set of psychological experiments to test whether candidates are mentally equipped to be an astronaut.

Some People Say...

“There’s no place like home.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Wait a second – are these preparations for an actual trip to Mars?
It’s not on the cards quite yet: NASA says the technology is still ‘decades away’. But it does show that space agencies are serious about the idea. A manned Mars voyage may well happen within your lifetime.
Wow. How do I get on board?
You’ll have to work extremely hard. Astronauts usually have advanced degrees in difficult areas of science such as chemistry, physics or engineering. You must also be very physically fit – one test involves swimming three lengths of a pool in shoes and a flight suit – and mentally resilient, as this study shows. But the selection process is open to anybody, so it’s certainly not an impossible dream.

Word Watch

Twenty-minute delay
Phone calls between Earth and a spaceship would be transmitted via radio waves, which travel at the speed of light (the fastest possible speed in the universe). But a Mars mission would likely take astronauts at least 50 million miles away from the planet, and that is far enough to cause a noticeable delay even to messages that travel at such a speed.
Freeze-dried
To be suitable for use in space, food must be non-perishable, easily packaged and not prone to making a mess (it’s hard to get rid of crumbs in a spaceship). It must also provide a healthy, balanced diet. Much of the food is frozen and then put under high pressure conditions so that all the water turns to gas. This makes the food compact and prevents it from going off.
Sleep patterns
Every person has an internal ‘body clock’ which is controlled by a group of 20,000 brain cells called the ‘chiasmatic nucleus’. This controls the level of activity of cells throughout your body as the day passes. This daily variation in cell activity is known as your ‘circadian rhythm’.
25-hour day
Some psychological experiments in which people were deprived of sunlight have suggested that many people’s natural body clocks are out of sync with the Earth, functioning on a cycle of more than 24 hours. This has led some eccentric (and presumably unemployed) people to simply ignore the Sun and construct their own 25-hour day.

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