Six people, a French astrobiologist, a German physicist, and four Americans — a pilot, an architect, a doctor/journalist and a soil scientist – will seal themselves inside for a year.
The purpose will be to simulate a mission to Mars, with a particular emphasis in studying how interpersonal conflicts are created and resolved. The simulation is the latest in a series of experiments that subject groups of people to the isolation and other hardships of a long-term voyage to and from Mars.
NASA plans to send a human expedition to Mars in the 2030s, likely the most challenging space mission ever attempted. Currently, such a mission is envisioned to take about three years round-trip, including a stay of over a year on the Martian surface.
The number of hazards, including cosmic background radiation, solar flares, micro-meteors, and the debilitating effects of long-term weightlessness are staggering.
Impact of Living on Mars
The psychological effects on groups of people in long-term isolation, particularly in submarines and at science outposts in Antarctica, have long been known and studied. Usually, psychological pre-screening and skilled leadership serve to mitigate such conflicts and resolve them when they occur. In extreme cases, someone who has become a disruptive influence can be confined or removed.
Neither of those solutions will be possible on a voyage to Mars. A crew of a Mars ship will be a hundred million miles from home at their greatest distance, isolated as no group of human beings has ever been, confined to close quarters for years. Any conflicts have to be resolved quickly and effectively, lest the voyage end in disaster.
National Geographic notes that conflicts can arise out of little things, on the level of a spouse who won’t pick up his or her socks from the floor or who makes rude noises at dinner (3). More serious sources of conflict could include personalities that grate on others and, with mixed-gendered crews almost certain, the ever-present shadow of sexual tension.
The Russians, along with the European Space Agency, have already conducted a series of these isolation experiences, Discovery News reported, lasting as long as 520 days (4). The main problem that the crew of the Mars 500 simulated mission suffered was insomnia, followed by lethargy during waking hours. The findings suggested that specialized lighting would be needed on an actual Mars mission to simulate the day/night cycle.
The Mars Society, a private group, has conducted a number of Mars mission simulations (5). The private effort consisted of siting a Mars habitat in an isolated part of the world, barren enough to resemble the surface of Mars as much as possible, such as the Utah desert or Devon Island near the Arctic. Crews on these simulated missions would conduct experiments and undertake EVAs wearing the kinds of space suits that real Mars explorers will wear.
More recently, NASA and the Russian space agency are conducting an experiment that involves astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko spending a year on the International Space Station (6).
The full array of psychological and physical effects of long-duration spaceflight are being studied. Kelly’s twin brother, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, is serving as a control back on Earth.
One of the paradoxes of the first human expedition to Mars will be that, while the astronauts will be physically isolated from Earth, they will be living and working before the eyes of the entire world. The psychological effects of being followed by billions of people have never been properly studied. Measures will certainly have to be taken to ensure some measure of privacy for the astronauts while they embark on the greatest voyage of discovery in history.