Can Six Astronauts Live Together for 17 Months And Not Go Crazy?

The "Mars500" project was the most ambitious attempt yet to simulate the conditions of an expedition to the Red Planet. A newly published study assesses the psychological well-being of the crew during their "mission"—and reveals what it was like to live in cramped quarters with 6 people for 520 days.

At the State Scientific Center of the Russian Federation, every effort was made to simulate the conditions of an actual Mars mission. An international crew of six volunteers were selected by the Russian Federation, the European Space Agency and the China National Space Administration. They were confined to a facility with a volume and configuration comparable to a spacecraft; they were assigned work that included both routine and simulated emergency events; they were isolated from the Earth's light-dark cycles and seasonal changes; and they were made aware that they would be subjected to constant media scrutiny.

And how did things go?

• One crewmember had symptoms of depression during 93% of the mission.

• Conflicts with mission control were reported five times more often than than conflicts among crewmembers.

• Two crewmembers who had the highest ratings of stress and physical exhaustion accounted for 85% of the perceived conflicts.

• Two crewmembers showed neither behavioral disturbances nor reports of psychological distress during the 17-month period.

Based on these findings, the authors of the study offer some recommendations:

A progressive sedentariness of the crew was evident through increased sleep time and decreased workload ratings with time in mission. This highlights the need for coping strategies that address monotony and boredom from low workload after the first mission quarter, when communication delays with mission control became pronounced.

The fact that conflicts with mission control were reported by crewmembers five times more often than conflicts among themselves highlights the importance of a good relationship between the crew and mission controllers and the need for a greater involvement of mission controllers in pre-mission training….Additionally, greater crew autonomy might reduce conflicts between the crew and mission control.

When all…behavioral and psychological data are considered in aggregate, only two of the six crewmembers… showed neither behavioral disturbances nor reports of psychological distress during the 17-month period of mission confinement. This meta-finding highlights the importance of identifying behavioral, psychological, and biological markers of the characteristics that predispose prospective long-duration space exploration crewmembers to both effective and ineffective neurobehavioral and psychosocial reactions to the prolonged confinement required for exploration missions.

Perhaps the most important finding was that crewmembers who exhibited problems did so relatively early in the mission—which means that space agencies could find out who has the "right stuff" by conducting much shorter simulations.

Photo: ESA.