There are many challenges associated with long-duration space travel. There are factors, other than the technological and physiological obstacles, that will determine whether the trip to Mars is a successful one. There are a number of behavioural issues that could affect crew members during the two- or three-year round-trip to Mars (1). The psychological effects of space travel are being examined before the mission to Mars is launched.
Image credit: Wikipedia
In one study, the relationships between crew members, and between crew members and mission control personnel, were investigated (2). Researchers found that crew members would displace their tension and negative emotions onto mission control personnel.
A separate study stressed that crew members showed decreases in the scope and content of their communications and a filtering of what they said to mission control personnel (3). Some astronauts interacted less with some mission control personnel than others, perceiving them as opponents. Indeed, authors of the study found some astronauts became more egocentric in isolation, which could prove to be problematic during the mission to Mars.
However, some of the psychosocial effects of isolation were quite positive. For example, researchers found that crew members could function as a cohesive unit because of the time they spent together. On the other hand, outliers negatively affected group cohesion.
A study titled Cross-cultural training requirements for long-duration space missions (2007) noted other difficulties by surveying astronauts and mission control personnel. These include coordination difficulties between the different space organisations involved with the missions, as well as communication misunderstandings and differences in work management styles.
And another fascinating study asked cosmonauts what psychological and interpersonal problems they thought might occur during a Mars expedition (4). Researchers highlighted several answers: isolation and monotony, distance-related communication delays with Earth, leadership issues, and cultural misunderstandings within international crews.
Alone and bored in space
One of the most challenging psychological effects of space travel is the feeling of being isolated. While astronauts have other crew members to interact with and talk to, this is no substitute for lifelong friends and family, or all of the other acquaintances and new faces that we see on a daily basis.
But it’s not just isolation from loved ones back home that can cause issues. Being separated from planet Earth itself can be difficult. In her book Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, author Mary Roach writes:
“People can’t anticipate how much they’ll miss the natural world until they are deprived of it. I have read about submarine crewmen who haunt the sonar room, listening to whale songs and colonies of snapping shrimp. Submarine captains dispense “periscope liberty”—a chance for crew members to gaze at clouds and birds and coastlines and remind themselves that the natural world still exists. I once met a man who told me that after landing in Christchurch after a winter at the South Pole research station, he and his companions spent a couple days just wandering around staring in awe at flowers and trees. At one point, one of them spotted a woman pushing a stroller. “A baby!” he shouted, and they all rushed across the street to see. The woman turned the stroller and ran.” (5)
Freudian psychiatrists also speculated decades ago that separation from ‘mother Earth’ could lead to pathological ‘separation anxiety’ (6). They said that this anxiety could lead to a temptation to escape through suicide or oblivion, even accompanied by an urge to destroy the space ship and all of the other crew members. However, NASA has guidelines on how to handle a situation where a crew member becomes dangerously agitated during space travel (7). It involves duct tape, bungee cords and tranquilisers.
Earth is the only home we’ve ever known and to be away from it for so long, and to be so far removed from everything associated with life there – well, this could indeed create an intense feeling of homesickness. After all, feeling homesick on Earth can easily be fixed, but it’s completely different when you’re on a three-year expedition to another planet. It could create a very uncomfortable sensation of being trapped.
The six men who endured a 520-day simulation of a Mars-bound mission reported feeling bored and lacking motivation (8). Psychiatrist Mathias Basner, from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, said:
“Four of them showed at least one issue that could have exploded or led to a severe adverse effect during a Mars mission.” (9)
During another simulation, two of the crew members never spoke to each other except when it came to mission-critical exchanges (10). Their near-silent treatment lasted 18 months. Many issues could arise if you had crew members not speaking to each other during a two- or three-year long trip.
Who’s up for it?
Perhaps the psychological effects of space travel can be mitigated through the selection process, since only a small subset of astronauts will be willing to be away from friends and family for so long. Whilst those on the Mars500 mission reported negative psychological effects, this doesn’t mean that all crew members would succumb to these effects (11).
A very particular kind of astronaut may be able to thrive during long-duration spaceflight. But nothing’s for certain. It could be that the very nature of human psychology itself will make the mission to Mars an inherent challenge. More simulated missions will be necessary to get to grips with these complex issues.
About the author: Sam Woolfe @samwoolfe
I’m currently a Writer at The Canary, covering issues relating to the food industry, drugs, health, well-being and nutrition. I’m also a Blogger for Inspiring Interns, where I offer careers advice for graduates. If you have a story you want me to cover, drop me a message on Twitter (@samwoolfe). You can also check out my travel blog (samreflectsontravel.com) and personal blog (www.samwoolfe.com) to read my articles on philosophy, psychology, and more opinion-related content.