Mission to Mars: Life in a tin can
- April 3, 2009 3:09 PM |
- By Quirks
By Bob McDonald, host of the CBC science radio program Quirks & Quarks
Six volunteers from Russia and Europe have locked themselves in a windowless habitat, about the size of four mobile homes, for a 105-day isolation test that simulates a trip to deep space.
If successful, it will be followed by a 500-day mission, which will represent the total travel time for a single trip to Mars and back. While engineers face the technical challenges of building rockets for a trip to the Red Planet, the Mars 500 Project will examine the psychological challenges of living with others in a confined space for a year- and-a-half, a challenge that could be greater than the technical one.
The Russians are the masters of long duration space flight, with several cosmonauts spending more than a year on the former Mir Space Station. On a trip to Moscow, I met the chief psychologist at Mission Control who described morale among crewmembers as vital to a successful mission. In space, there is no room for personality conflicts, petty arguments, depression or anxiety.
Yet they do pop up occasionally, due to basic human nature. To tackle those issues, the Russians hold weekly video conferences with the families, so cosmonaut fathers can see their wives and children for a brief time. A more powerful morale booster is when a cosmonaut’s favourite hockey player, actor or performer is brought in for a chat, so the spacemen can have a chance to talk to someone who has nothing to do with space or the family.
Unfortunately, a mission to Mars will not have these luxuries. Only three days after launch, the Earth will be gone from view. For seven months, crewmembers will see nothing out their windows but the blackness of interplanetary space. As their distance from Earth increases, so too does the travel time of their radio signals, creating a delay of up to 20 minutes. Normal dialogue with home will be impossible. All communication with the ground will be one-way, mostly by email.
The four Russians, one German and one Frenchman taking part in the experiment will attempt to endure this type of isolation and deal with the larger problem of getting along with one another in a confined windowless space where there is no escape. Any conflict that arises has to be solved on the spot. In space, you can’t stomp out the door and go for a walk to simmer down (an earlier isolation experiment involving an international mixed gender crew had to be cut short when one of the male members became overly amorous to a Canadian woman).
Such are the challenges of sending humans to other worlds. It will take a special type of person to explore interplanetary space. Even the Apollo astronauts who went to the moon were never more than three days from home. Those on a mission to Mars are completely on their own, with no possibility of rescue for months.
We tend to think of the exploration of space as the discovery of other worlds, but the farther out we go, the more it becomes an exploration of the most basic human characteristics - the ability to get along. Considering how well we get along on Spaceship Earth, perhaps the more difficult journey into a space where no one has gone before is a journey inside the human mind.
(Check out our documentary on what it would take to settle the stars beyond our galaxy - the MP3 audio file on that page is still valid. Or listen to our documentary on whether we need humans in space at all.)
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