A Year in Isolation - Researchers Start Mock Mars Mission to Study Psychological Effects of Space Travel

Wednesday, 02 September 2015 - 10:49AM
Space
Mars
Wednesday, 02 September 2015 - 10:49AM
A Year in Isolation - Researchers Start Mock Mars Mission to Study Psychological Effects of Space Travel
Last week, six members of a NASA team began their year-long isolation experiment, the longest experiment of its kind. Living inside a 36ft diameter, 20ft high dome near a barren volcano in Hawaii, these researchers are going to discover the realities of a similarly isolated mission to Mars. While missions to the International Space Station last six months, a mission to Mars could be anywhere between one to three years, and NASA is expecting some wear and tear on the psychological well-being of the participants.


Interpersonal conflict and disputes have led to delays in mission progress, such as the Skylab 3 mission when disagreements caused the crew to ignore mission control and switch off their radio for a day, and psychological stress from crew conflict has also been sighted as the source for some instances of hallucinations, such as the 1976 Russian Soyuz-21 mission that was ended early due to the smell of a non-existent fluid leak.

Opening quote
I think one of the lessons is that you really can't prevent interpersonal conflicts. It is going to happen over these long-duration missions, even with the very best people. - Kim Binsted, NASA investigator
Closing quote


Besides conflict, another psychological issue that can have a profound effect on crew morale is boredom, especially once you pass the halfway point, leading to tensions between crew members and even depression. This slump period has been combatted in the past by sending surprises to the crew through support ships or arranging telephone calls with family, but on a long-duration trip to Mars the time delay could create difficulties in these types of communication.



However, interpersonal stresses might not be the only cause of psychological disruptions in a long-term mission. Studies have found that living in space can affect brain functionality, limiting mental abilities such as co-ordination and problem solving, which could be linked to restricted activity in confined spaces, the effect of a gravity-free environment on blood flow, and changes in the brains resting state during periods of weightlessness. These drops in ability are not serious, but combined with the stress of isolation, could lead to issues during emergencies.

Though the NASA researchers in Hawaii will not be affected by low-gravity psychological disturbances, this year-long experiment will help us see how personal conflicts could affect a crew's well-being and abilities, as well as how best to ease tensions on an isolated Mars mission.
Science
NASA
Space
Mars

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