How will humans cope with boredom on their first missions to Mars?

A human mission to Mars will last more than 8 months, each way. Ship quarters will be sardine-esque. Communications will be laggy and intermittent. And, despite the thrilling nature of the larger mission, astronauts en route to the Red Planet will likely struggle with psyche-crushing boredom. So how might an astronaut occupy her time on such a venture?

In her latest piece for NYT Magazine, Maggie Koerth-Baker takes a long, hard look at space-boredom, and the measures researchers are taking to better understand and prepare for it. From the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) project – a human isolation experiment set on a Hawaiian volcano – to the diaries of early polar explorers, psychologists rely on a range of evidence to make sense of how humans experience and cope with the stresses of boredom:

One effective way astronauts combat boredom is by staying busy with work. That’s a strategy at HI-SEAS, where the crew member Kate Greene told me that her schedule is packed — every hour planned and accounted for, from the time she wakes up to the time she goes to bed at night. Life on the International Space Station is similar. (In fact, historically, NASA’s problem has been overworking people: in 1973, the exhausted crew of Skylab 4 actually staged a relaxation rebellion and took an unscheduled day off.) But Antarctica is different from HI-SEAS or the International Space Station. Communications are limited. There’s nobody outside the base directing your day. Spectacular views vanish in a haze of white. It’s just you, the people you came in with, no way out and little to break up the monotony.

And so some researchers there have learned to actively fend off boredom by creating what you might call a unique office culture. They celebrate a ridiculous number of holidays, both traditional and invented. You need something to look forward to, [says cognitive and social psychologist Peter Suedfeld], and planning the events helps change the routine. Even Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic crew found ways to put on skits and concerts. On one expedition, Shackleton brought a small printing press. At McMurdo Station, the 1983 winter crew created costumes, learned lines and acted out scenes from the movie “Escape From New York.”

Meanwhile, over at BoingBoing, Koerth-Baker expands on some coping strategies that never made it into the NYT Magazine piece. Video games, for example, designed with the communication lag between Earth and a Mars-bound spacecraft in mind:

A hybrid of real-time MMORPG and a vs. the Computer strategy game. People on Earth might be able to join a MMORPG, hook up with a group, and play just like they do now. Meanwhile, millions of miles away, astronauts en route to the Red Planet could open up the same game and play it in a slightly different way — responding to decisions and scenarios set up by real people, without having to be in direct, constant contact with those people.

Both of these pieces are well worth a read. For more, visit NYT Magazine and BoingBoing.