Mission to Mars: How Space Agencies are Preparing

Landing on Mars is the easy part—what's hard is spending the better part of a year getting there. Josh Dzieza on the grueling 256-day simulation astronauts are enduring.

On Monday, six men will emerge from a small metal tube, frail and exhausted, having become the first humans ever to endure the grueling, sanity-testing, seemingly endless journey to Mars.

But for all their trouble, they'll reap none of the glory most astronauts get. For when they emerge onto the Red Planet's surface, they'll actually be right where they started 256 days ago: in a nondescript Russian suburb.

Anyone going to Mars will face several challenges: the devastating solar radiation, the physical strain of prolonged weightlessness. But the difficulty of simply getting there is a daunting prospect in and of itself. The challenge of keeping astronauts sane, healthy, and working together while stuck onboard a cramped spaceship for over a year, round-trip, is what researchers at the European and Russian Space agencies are working on. Since the spring of 2010, six men have been confined to a small tube in a suburb of Moscow, interacting with the researchers monitoring them on a 20-minute delay (as they would during real space travel). Two days from now, they’ll venture out onto a pretend Martian surface, then return to their tube for the return trip to Earth. In total, they'll spend 520 days being observed by camera, taking psychological and physical tests—and trying to pass the time.

A voyage to Mars would be the adventure of a lifetime, a milestone for the human species. But a vast amount of it will be spent in interplanetary doldrums, waiting to arrive at the destination. “People are going to meet their demons on this trip, the ones they bring with them in their heads,” says space consultant and former NASA safety engineer James Oberg. “There’s a laundry list of psychological challenges,” says NASA psychologist Walter Sipes. The isolation, the confinement, the boredom, the interpersonal tension—“After a while, you’ve heard all their stories.”

The tests being done by the Mars500 crew, some designed to measure the effects of boredom and isolation, also help ward it off. During the day, the crew is kept busy with biometric tests and psychological evaluations. In the evenings, they play videogames, listen to music, and read. Their lives are strictly regimented: eight hours of tests, eight hours of leisure, eight hours of sleep per day.

But repeated tests create a uniform sort of busywork, which can turn quickly into malaise. “The routine has a monotony about it,” says Patrik Sundblad, head of life science at the ESA's European Space Research and Technology Center, “and it’s in these periods of monotony you see the psychological effects coming up.” Nothing is boring if done only once; it’s the repetition that can be crushing. “On a daily basis it’s not hard,” says Oliver Knickel, a participant on a 105-day isolation test. “The psychological pressure is that you don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. What I’ll be doing now I’ll be doing tomorrow, for three days, for 30 days.”

“People are going to meet their demons on this trip, the ones they bring with them in their heads.”

Bored and with no place to go, people get irritable. Small problems loom huge. “There were conflicts based on small things, someone being too loud in the morning, not being accurate in their tests,” says Knickel. “That would really drive everyone crazy.” Knickel’s group worked things out themselves. They aired their grievances openly and as a group, they cheered up sullen teammates—and knew when to leave them alone. Not all groups do. Eleven years ago, a 110-day isolation experiment was aborted when a Canadian woman accused the Russian commander of pushing her out of view of the module’s cameras and forcibly kissing her. Earlier, part of the crew, alarmed by fist fights between two members, hid the knives and barricaded themselves in the back of the module. The Russian space agency chalked it up to cultural differences. “In a way it was a successful test,” says Oberg. “When everything runs smoothly, it’s reassuring, but doesn’t tell you where your limits are.”

The Russian space agency has always taken more of an interest in the psychological effects of spaceflight than any other nation’s agency has. Oberg says that's due to a cultural difference. “It’s something in the Russian soul, they know that people have internal demons. The Russians understand this. NASA remains as clueless as ever.” Back in the days of Mir, says Oberg, they used to send astronauts on long road trips, where they’d “sleep and snore and fart together, so there’d be fewer surprises when they’re up there.”

There are hundreds of years’ worth of examples of people coping successfully with isolation and boredom for long stretches of time, says Sipes. “We know a lot already, we know people can handle it.” Early explorers spent years in small groups far from home. The polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen spent three years ice-bound in the Arctic. Compared with Nansen, astronauts would be quite connected to home, even with a 20-minute communication delay. More recently, we have the example of crews on nuclear submarines, who like astronauts spend long stretches in a hermetically sealed environment.

Nansen’s crew just kept busy, conducting experiments and celebrating holidays, trying to make life onboard as homey as possible. The Mars500 crew is doing the same, pooling the holidays of their home nations and celebrating them all. They recently celebrated the Lunar New Year with calligraphy lamps and posters, and the French holiday Epiphany of the Western Countries with a figurine hidden inside a cake. For Christmas, says Mars500 program director Martin Zeller, they made a tree from cardboard boxes and strung it with electrodes from a neurophysiological experiment. Holidays are important, says Zeller. Celebrating them creatively “keeps them busy and their mind in motion.”

Holidays also help them mark time, which can behave strangely in isolation. “Day to day, time moved normally, but on a long-term basis, I lost the sense of time,” says Knickel. “When I came out, it could have been three weeks.” It had been more than three months. Part of this was intentional on Knickel’s part. He says he tried to keep from counting the days so as not to be overcome, so he’d be surprised when something reminded him time was passing. But it’s also an effect of being cut off from the cycle of night and day.

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Without the cues of sunrise and sunset, people’s sleep schedules start to drift out of sync, and this, says Sipes, can be a problem. People’s internal clocks run slightly longer than 24 hours, and without the sun regulating sleep, people start to sleep later, their schedules drifting to the right at different rates. “Night owls and larks separate,” says Sipes, causing divisions within the crew, and potential conflict between the people banging around the station and the people trying to sleep. “You want to keep everyone waking up at the same time.”

Back in Moscow, spirits are high as the crew prepares to “land.” They’ll venture out onto the simulated Martian surface three times before returning to the module for the return trip to Earth. That’ll be the hard part, says Sundblad. Just routine tests to perform, the major event of the experiment behind them. Knickel said the middle was the hardest part, “too far from the beginning to be excited, too far from the end to look forward to it.”

When Knickel emerged, he went through several weeks of testing to see how he’d fared in isolation, then went straight back to work. For a few weeks, he “appreciated the small things you don’t notice, the comfort of looking something up on the Internet, eating what you want, picking up a phone and calling someone.” Though he said that “after a couple weeks they became usual again.” People tend to normalize anything, even a make-believe trip to a neighboring planet two-thirds-of-a-year away.