Mars Settlement Pioneers Will Face Huge Psychological Challenges

Article written: 2 Jun , 2008
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015
by

Imagine you are on the crew of a Mars mission and you fall out with a fellow crew member. You can’t walk away from them. Imagine you are on the surface of Mars and you suffer terrible home sickness. You can’t simply fly back to your family. Imagine there is a medical emergency in your team en-route to the Red Planet. You can’t call emergency services, you’re on your own. These issues with long-period missions into space, especially on future missions to colonize Mars, could cause serious psychological issues and may jeopardise the mission. Many groups are currently working on understanding how humans could react in these situations when they are isolated and confined so far away from home, and “Mars Analogues” based here on Earth are proving to be very useful…

It may seem obvious that it is going to be mentally (let alone physically) tough for future astronauts on the first manned missions to Mars, but space organizations (like NASA and ESA) and voluntary groups such as the Mars Society are gaining a valuable insight to how we function when restricted to very confined spaces with only a handful of people for company. Mars settlement mock-ups known as “Mars analogue environments” based in locations like the Utah Desert or the Arctic island of Spitsbergen are extremely valuable to mission planners when researching how to live and work on the Martian surface. However, they are also proving to be very influential when selecting crew members who will spend all of their time together. This psychological factor may be key to the future of Mars missions that could last years.

Plans are afoot for a long 520-day mock Mars mission this year to study the effects isolation has on a group of 12 volunteers. The study is being carried out by ESA and the Russian Institute of Biomedical Problems so psychological issues can be identified and understood. It is work like this on Earth that will influence the selection of astronauts to be sent to Mars who are compatible in a work and social environment.

A lot of research has been done on astronauts ever since Yuri Gagarin was launched into orbit alone in 1961. Before Gagarin’s historic journey, doctors were very concerned that weightlessness may cause acute mental disorders such as schizophrenia. Fortunately, this was not to be the case, but there are many disorders we cannot fully test until man ventures far into interplanetary space.

2006 Arctic Mars Analogue Svalbard Expedition (Jake Maule)

It seems natural that Mars astronauts will want gifts, luxuries and other “reminders from home”, as is possible on the International Space Station, but they will be totally isolated with no ferrying of items when they leave the safety of Earth. This need can be subdued by regular communications with home (although a 40+ minute delay for communications between Earth and Mars will make any “live” conversation impossible), and generally we know the problems we’ll face should these “homesick” feelings surface.

But what happens when man loses sight of Earth? Dr. Nick Kanas, who has studied astronaut psychology at UC San Francisco, is concerned about this unknown factor. He has even given this situation a name: the “Earth out of view” phenomenon.

Nobody in the history of mankind has ever experienced the Earth as a pale, insignificant blue dot in the sky. What that might do to a crew member, nobody knows.” – Dr. Nick Kanas.

This is the nature of the task in hand, humans are going to be pushed beyond what we would consider to be a “natural” situation. Perhaps we might surprise ourselves and find that space exploration is as natural to us as it was for our ancestors to discover new continents. In fact, many astronaut psychologists are looking back into the history books to gain an insight as to what it was like for early pioneers of global exploration.

When early explorers left their home countries on the seas, they didn’t see their home countries anymore. They didn’t even have a dot to look at. It was out of sight on the other side of the world. It is not like we are reinventing the wheel. We are just doing the same thing in a different environment that was just as demanding then.” – Walter Sipes, NASA psychologist, Johnson Space Center, Houston.

These factors combined with space euphoria and the “Overview Effect”, our future Mars astronauts are possibly in for a bumpy psychological ride…

Source: CNN


22 Responses

  1. Astrofiend says

    Read the MARS trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson, especially (Red) Mars for a pretty good idea what may happen to some people. I think he thought out the reactions that people may go through quite well…

  2. Ravens_Cry says

    There may be technological differences, but I don’t see the difference between this and the long sea voyages of the Age of Exploration. Yes, you could breath the air, and even do a little fishing, but the problems were the same or even worse. 40 Minutes to get a message from your loved ones, oh no how will we cope?! It is doable, it will be difficult, no one says it won’t be, but it is doable. North America and Australia are proof of that.

  3. GI Joe says

    Here’s a decent starting point on selecting a Mars crew:

    No crybabies.

  4. The best way to test this out (in my honest opinion) is to star a lunar colony on the far side of the Moon (with 6 month rotations).

    Scientists could mimic what astronauts would feel like being unable to (literally) see Earth, and could imitate the 40 min. delay as well.

    While I think most trained astronauts would be able to handle it, its better to “work out the bugs” now, rather than face the consequence half way to the red planet.

  5. John -- www.moonposter.ie says

    I wrote recently about the whole psychology problems that long-distance space travellers are likely to experience — e.g. leadership roles, gender/age problems, crew compatibility & heterogeneity…etc. So if anyone needs more info., on this, please contact me through my site — http://www.moonposter.ie — and I can send you on the material.
    I also also cover the most recent series of long-duration Earth environments programmes, and there’s even a Q&A to see if you are of the right stuff for such missions.

    PS. The Moon poster — the most detailed around — isn’t bad either.
    John

  6. Maxwell says

    Don’t need the moon.
    Just send em to antartica, alaska, siberia or some other remote and desolate place for a year and turn off their internets.

    That way your guineapigs can have all the time needed to lose their marbles without leaving earth.

  7. Silver Thread says

    It’s the moment of truth, all of those winners of Survivor will be put to the final test, a trip to Mars. Who’s love lives will survive and who’s will succumb to the ravages of space travel, find out tonight on SURVIVOR MARS!

  8. Ravens_Cry says

    I hope I live to see that, I really do.

  9. vesnas says

    “Space exploration is as natural to us as it was for our ancestors to discover new continents”. Yes, we belong to stars, our future is up there. It won’t be easy for the first ones, but it’s destiny of the pioneers to open the door! I envy the future generations, so many beautiful things ahead!
    And I agree with Astrofiend :
    Read the MARS trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson, you’ll get to know so many things

  10. autumn says

    My first thought is that the present generation of humans is so woefully unprepared to face actual interaction that a forty minute delay in communications would actually be advantageous to them.
    The trick is how to keep them from communicating with each other.

    Let’s just ship up teen-agers with Game-Boys, as long as they have batteries, they won’t speak a single word to each other.

  11. I’d go to Mars if there was a 2 way travel deal….none of this 1 way ticket stuff though.

  12. Mags says

    What is, after 40 minutes or so, no one answered back? What if no one EVER answered back?

  13. Blackblade says

    The U.S. Navy has operated ballistic missile submarines for decades, with the crews remaining submerged and at sea for several months at a time: http://www.pigboats.com/bg/bluegold.html

    (page describing life on an SSBN several decades ago, but it’s still relevant)

    Additionally, there is a potential for undersea mining and resource collection which may mean operating bases undersea with long rotation times as well.

    Really, the answer is simple: just send introverts, keep them supplied with plenty of games, and make sure there’s a finite time they have to spend there — none of that weird one-way trip stuff.

  14. Richad Kirk says

    When Nansen set off in the “Fram” they packed six years of food in case they were stuck in the ice longer then they expected. Amundsen spent an extra winter doing the North-West passage which he might have avoided because he wanted to learn the native survival techniques. I don’t know if Norway still turns out such headbangers, but it can’t hurt to ask.

  15. alphonso richardson says

    It’s good that people are carrying out theses tests. regardless of what we may beleive, each situation is different, but we have a wealth of past experience to draw on to help, as others posting to this article have pointed out.

  16. Bill Moore says

    Has anyone studied the effects of long-term imprisonment and applied any results to long-term space travel? It seems there could be several studies conducted on this group that would correlate to a Mars journey. Several factors wouldn’t obviously apply, but some similarities would.

  17. Cosselbray says

    The people who took those “long sea voyages of the age of exploration” also had the added disadvantage of not knowing what they may find. Compare “Here there be Monsters” on an old map to the data we have from Spirit, opportunity, phoenix etc. Yes, we will have challenges but, they thrived and so can we.

  18. Chuck Lam says

    It’s fascinating why most folks speak of getting to Mars for an extended stay or for colonization purposes as a matter of simply crossing the Atlantic. I sense they do not have the slightest clue how mind-boggling expensive, difficult and hazardous a Mars project will be. The psychological problems will be childs play to manage with existing drugs. The getting there, setting up housekeeping on the surface for as little as a month and returning in one piece probably won’t be possible until the next century, if ever. How will doing this grandiose thing with Mars benefit mankind? The return on investment is highly questionable. The brain power and money wasted on this folly would be better invested in solving the myriad of problems facing our culture today. If we take care of the present now, there just might be something left to finance our curiosity going to Mars in the future.

  19. Kevin M. says

    Or read “A Canticle for Leibowitz” and send monks. The religious specialize in concentrated and regimented living, communal or individual, are naturally dedicated scientists, and have a social context for handling stress and conflicts. We might have to recognize that going to Mars might need to be more of a cultural colonization than a scientific one. Science does not exist in a social vacuum, and humans can only handle so much stress, period. So send up married couples as well, and plan for reproductive acitivity. Sex and religion are the two great social menders and stabilizers. Also plan for a justice and medical system to iron out inevitable conflicts, death, and disease, including mental disease., Houston will be too far away to be of any real use, and there are too many human variables over time to think we will be able to handle it. Perhaps a few intrepid “advance” loners at first, there have always been some who respond to perilous adventure. Humans are not such wimps as we think, we are a race of cold-blooded survivors. Otherwise, we need to acknowledge from the start that the initial missions are likely to be suicide missions, the chances are slim that everyone, or anyone, will survive. There is far too much potential for mishap. It’s a death-defying process just going to the space station! What in the world makes us think we can get to Mars without liberal expenditure of lives and money?

  20. Maxwell says

    The costs are high because the method of travel has not been standardized for anything beyond small run production lines. You’re building a custom craft for every journey. This requires the attention of high wage earning scientists to design, assemble, troubleshoot, and maintain.

    Do that with a car and the costs would be so high you couldn’t argue to colonize California by driving across the US. Despite the simplicity of the journey. .
    I’d think we need serious research of what it would cost to mass produce reliable heavy lift rockets before ruling out where we can and cant afford to go.
    By the sounds of it theres more to work with on mars than on the moon. Which could translate to less equipment and a lower cost, despite the time to travel there.

    Besides, theres a good chance we will never see star trek level technology. To sit around here waiting for it is a waste of extremely valuable time.

  21. Aodhhan says

    The true psychology of this cannot be studied by simulated methods near Earth or even the moon.
    Why?
    Because in the back of the minds of the participants is the fact they can be rescued or saved.

    Things change dramatically when you remove this variable from the equation.

    How many things would you second guess, if you thought some things out 10 or 20 steps? When your life is at stake, people over emphasize and over think.

    Add some of those steps are dependent upon you and whomever is with you (who you cannot control by the way).

  22. SignMeUp says

    Considering we live in a man-made, unnatural society, confined to either the walls of our houses, the walls of our cars, or the walls of our cubicles – who *are* these people they worry about going crazy from being confined?!? When was the last time you were “outdoors” for more than 15 minutes??? LOL

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