How to Optimize Your Headspace on a Mission to Mars

Imagine being confined to a metal cell with a couple of other
people and few amenities for months or even years. Maybe after
that, you’ll be moved to a new compound, but you still have no
privacy and extremely limited communication with your family and
anyone else in the outside world. You feel both crowded and lonely
at the same time, and yet no one comes to treat your emerging
mental-health problems.

While this might sound like life in prison, it could just as
easily be life as a deep-space explorer, in a sardine can of a
rocket hurtling to Mars or a more distant world. Despite years of
research by NASA and others, scientists have little insight into
the psychological, neurological and sociological problems that will
inevitably afflict space travelers battling depression, loneliness,
anxiety, stress and personality clashes many millions of miles away
from home. Sure, a growing body of research
now documents the impact of microgravity on one’s brain and body,
along with the exercises and medical attention needed to mitigate
the effects. But social isolation, limited privacy, interpersonal
issues, along with vast separation from loved ones, remain
relatively unexplored.

Even massive Star Trek spaceships—with plenty of space per
person—come with counselors on board, but what if the crew member
with counseling training gets injured or falls ill during a
critical moment? If morale plummets and rapport among the team
disappears, an emergency situation could spell the end of both the
astronauts and the mission.

Space confronts us with many fascinating worlds and phenomena.
But we have to traverse the void to reach them, and almost any trip
will be long and boring before we arrive. Peeking out the little
window offers the same view you saw yesterday and the day before.
While a jaunt to the Moon takes just a few days, it’s a slow,
eight-month journey or longer to Mars. A trip to the more
intriguing asteroids or moons of Jupiter and Saturn such as Europa
and Titan would take years. (And, just for scale, an attempt to
send a crew to Proxima Centauri, our nearest star, would likely
take millennia.) Then, when you arrive, new challenges and more
isolation await you.

Research on people in prison and solitary confinement offers

lessons
that deep-space astronauts could learn from. People in
prison develop symptoms similar to ones reported by those stationed
for long periods on the International Space Station:
hallucinations, stress, depression, irritability and insomnia, all
of it exacerbated when physical activity is difficult to achieve.
You don’t have the freedom to go outside for a peaceful stroll to
clear your mind or to visit and get cheered up by old friends. In
solitary confinement, the social isolation, the loneliness and
monotony affect your mental state and your brain activity after
only a couple of weeks, and some people never totally recover from
the ordeal.

To make matters worse, communication with Earth suffers more and
more delay the further one travels from home. Deep-space astronauts
would benefit from messages and video calls with loved ones—or
better yet, virtual-reality interactions with them—but as they
fly further away, it becomes less and less feasible to have those
conversations. Even a highly trained team of professional,
resilient people would struggle when there’s an increasingly
tenuous connection to everyone they know on Earth.

It’s hard to imagine what these situations will be like, but
NASA is trying. The agency’s psychological
experiments
with the Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and
Simulation (HI-SEAS) involve sequestering a six-member crew in a
cramped dome for four months to a year on a remote, otherworldly
spot on Mauna Loa, a rocky volcano. Over that time, participants
pretend they’re living on another planet, such as Mars. There’s
a 20-minute delay in written communications with mission control
(which means 40 minutes between a message and its reply). The dome
is equipped with extremely limited amenities (such as composting
toilets and freeze-dried food). And residents can leave the habitat
only for short time periods in simulation spacesuits.

As part of these experiments, participants wear devices and
answer weekly questionnaires that track their heart rates, sleep
quality, fatigue and changes in mood. Researchers hope to learn
which individual and group qualities help to solve problems and
resolve the interpersonal conflicts that inevitably arise when
people are cooped up in a tiny space.

Researchers have already accumulated plenty of data, though not
from the most recent mock mission. That one didn’t fare as well
as hoped—it had to be aborted after only four days. After fixing
an issue with the habitat’s power source, a crew member appeared
to have suffered from an electric shock and needed an ambulance.
After that individual was taken away, a disagreement about safety
concerns resulted in another person withdrawing from the
simulation, which then had to be called off.

An earlier simulation of six men squeezed into a spacecraft-like
module in Moscow also produced surprising results. Those crew
members developed increasing trouble sleeping and sometimes slept
more than usual, becoming more lethargic and less active. One
member’s sleep rhythm shifted to a 25-hour cycle (which is
actually the length of a Martian day), making him out of sync with
everyone else. Follow-up
research
showed that the two crew members experiencing the most
stress and exhaustion were involved in 85 per cent of the perceived
conflicts.

In a real mission to Mars, people will get hurt, and someone
might even get killed. When heated arguments develop, cooler heads
will have to prevail. Real space travel probably will have more
boredom and more infighting than anything on Star Trek or Star
Wars. (There’s a reason why science fiction relies on ludicrously
fast speeds: it makes such trips short enough for a story.)

To minimize conflicts among the astronauts or the pain of
someone suffering from a mental breakdown, experts will need to
spot the signs of their flagging mental state beforehand. These
future space explorers will probably undergo a battery of physical
and psychological tests every day, week and month, and their data
could be sent to scientists at home for analysis. Anything raising
a flag of concern could then be addressed.

If there’s one thing the limited research shows, it’s that
it’s hard to predict who will cope best and work well together as
the weeks and months, maybe even years, wear on. Many factors can
boost the chances of success, however, especially if crew members
give each other precisely the kind of support and encouragement
that people in prison are deprived of.

A well-performing team needs talented leaders and a closely knit
group of people. They need to build trust between each other while
they’re training, long before the rocket blasts off. Diverse,
international crews could help to overcome some challenges that
might come up, but that diversity also sometimes results in
cultural and interpersonal problems. A larger crew would likely
perform better than a smaller one, but the team’s size will
always be limited by how much weight and fuel can be launched.

Once they’re in space, people need to keep busy, and they need
to think they have something worthwhile to do, even if it’s
actually of limited value. They also need a tiny bit of privacy and
entertainment at times, which might include something they brought
from home or a simulation of the family and friends they left
behind. While at work, the crew members need clear goals and
procedures to follow in a wide range of situations. Only people
shown to be resilient under pressure for long periods and who have
strong teamwork skills even in stressful, sleep-deprived conditions
should be part of the crew.

But this is just a start. Two out of 135 space shuttle missions
ended in disaster, both for unforeseen engineering problems, but
none of them really faced the psychological tests that more
perilous, more distant missions will have.

Humans love to explore. It’s in our blood. But setting foot on
the Red Planet in 20 or 30 years is a more daunting task than
anything else ever attempted. To make sure our
quest
to explore Mars and more distant worlds continues, we
have to keep examining not just the engineering challenges but the
challenges of our own minds.

This article was originally published at Aeon and
has been republished under Creative Commons.

Image Credit:
NASA

Source: *FS – All – Science News 2 Net
How to Optimize Your Headspace on a Mission to Mars