Why the Mars500 mission doesn't prove we're psychologically capable of a trip to Mars

Space travel is a cramped and isolating endeavor, one that can weigh heavily on the mind of a spacefarer. How well we handle conditions like these over long periods of time is something we must consider more seriously in the years ahead, as humanity looks to venture deeper into space than we've ever been.

For years, we've relied on "isolation studies" to gauge our capacity for confined, lonely living; and tomorrow morning, Mars500 (the longest isolation study ever conducted) will be coming to what all accounts are calling a successful conclusion. ESA officials say we're ready for the real thing, but have we really shown that we're ready, psychologically, for a trip to the red planet?

Tomorrow morning, the six-man crew of Mars500 — the 520-day, simulated mission to Mars organized by the European Space Agency (ESA) — will "return" to Earth. Since June of 2010, the team of volunteer astronauts has been living on canned food, showering once a week, and communicating with folks "back home" on a 20-minute time-delay — all from the confines of a small, mock spaceship.

The isolation study — so-called on account of its primary goal: to assess the psychology of group dynamics and individual performance under isolated and confined conditions — was designed to simulate a full Martian mission, and is the longest ever conducted by the ESA.

Over the course of the simulated trip, crew members have kept close tabs on their brain activity, sleep patterns and even their bodily fluids. And while the data from these analyses will be more thoroughly scrutinized in the months following tomorrow morning's "return," many of the experiment's top officials are already heralding the simulation as a huge success; for weeks, Mars500 supervisor Alexander Suvorov has been telling news outlets that the simulation has proven that we're ready for a trip to Mars. His is a sentiment echoed by Patrik Sundblad, life sciences specialist at the ESA: "Yes, the crew can survive the inevitable isolation that is for a mission to Mars and back," Sundblad stated. "Psychologically, we can do it."

Mars500's volunteer astronauts seem to think they're ready as well. In a recent diary entry, French crew member Romain Charles said: "Our international crew went through the Mars500 mission successfully and we're happy and proud to answer positively to the question asked a year-and-a-half ago: 'Is man able to endure, physiologically and psychologically, the confinement of a trip to Mars?' Yes, we're ready to go!"

Why the Mars500 mission doesn't prove we're psychologically capable of a trip to Mars

But for as grueling as the Mars500 simulation conditions have been, the fact remains that they don't hold a candle to the challenges — both physical and psychological — that will be faced by crew members on an actual Martian mission.

Consider, for example, that the isolation facility used for the Mars500 project, while certainly ascetic by most normal standards, is downright palatial compared to anything we're liable use on a mission to Mars. The isolation facility comprises four interconnected "habitat modules," including the main living quarters: a 72-square-meter space comprising six individual compartments for the crew members (each with a bed, desk, chair, and shelves); a kitchen-dining room; a living room; the main control room; and a toilet.

Why the Mars500 mission doesn't prove we're psychologically capable of a trip to Mars

To be completely honest, pictures like this one — which show the wood-paneled kitchen and corridor of the main living quarters — make the Mars500 facility look more like a quaint winter cabin than a training facility.

Living conditions aside, there are still several other consequential aspects of space travel that simply can't be accounted for on a simulated Martian mission. Astronauts on a future trip to Mars will almost certainly spend the vast majority of their time in weightless conditions, and be subjected to prolonged exposure to radiation.

Perhaps most significantly, astronauts on future missions will have to be psychologically capable of surrendering to the fact that they are literally millions of miles from home, stuck in a tiny compartment, with no possibility of leaving (at least not until Martian touchdown or a safe return to Earth). While none of the Mars500 crew decided to leave the simulation at any point, the option was always available. The sense of safety and security that this provided just can't be brushed aside.

It should go without saying that I in no way mean to belittle the significance of the Mars500 simulation, nor detract from the achievements of everyone involved. Are simulations like Mars500 important and necessary? Of course. Has the time spent in isolation been a challenge for every one of the volunteer astronauts involved? Without question. But to suggest that we now understand what it takes, psychologically, to handle a 35-million-mile trip into deep space? Don't kid yourself.

The capsule door of the Mars500 isolation facility will open tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM EST. You can catch a live broadcast of the event over on the ESA website.
All images via ESA