When it comes to flying in space, the makeup of an astronaut crew can be just as important as the mission itself, and the same goes for a team of six volunteers going through the motions of a 520-day trek to Mars without ever leaving Earth.
The mock-Mars flight volunteers have already spent three months isolated inside a Russian simulator that mimics every phase of a trip to the Red Planet, but have a long ways to go before reaching even the midpoint of their Mars500 mission.
Researchers for the Mars500 project, which began June 3, are keeping a close watch on how the six men are physically and psychologically coping. Three Russians, two Europeans and one Chinese participant are sealed inside the Mars spaceship simulator at Russia's Institute for Biomedical Problems in Moscow.
In addition to examining the psychological effects of long-duration spaceflight, researchers are hoping that the experiment will shed some light on significant factors to consider in crew selection for lengthy future space missions.
When the voyage alone could last several years, crew composition becomes an integral part of the mission's success, researchers said. [Graphic: Inside the Mars500 simulator.]
"We are searching for psychological predictors that may say something about the interpersonal compatibility of the crew so that in the future, we may be able to decide about some criteria to use for crew composition," Gro Sandal, a principal investigator for the Mars500 simulation and a professor of psychology at the University of Bergen in Norway, told SPACE.com.
Future explorers of Mars or an asteroid need to be able to withstand the extended periods of boredom and monotony that would accompany long spaceflight, but also need to be able to tolerate the pressure and stress of the mission itself. Equally important is to consider social personality traits, since the crew would be living and working in close quarters for extensive amounts of time.
"It's important to select people for their ability to handle the tasks that are needed to be an astronaut, but also their ability to interact with others in a group," said Nick Kanas, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. "You need to be able to get along with people, but at the same time, be comfortable working in isolation if needed. There has to be some flexibility in your personality."
How to get along ... in deep space
Additionally, as space agencies from different countries are increasingly working together, crews have also become more heterogeneous and multinational. As a result, cultural differences between crew members could also complicate group cohesion. The heterogeneous makeup of the Mars500 crew, and the partnership of the space agencies involved, could provide some useful analogs in this area of research.
"Interpersonal tension will occur in any confined setting in which you have to stay for a long time — that's a normal reaction," Sandal said. "We do think that interpersonal tension and misunderstanding increases with crew heterogeneity because people from different cultures may have values that may be different or even incompatible."
Kanas believes that these cultural tensions can be counteracted through education and open dialogue among an astronaut crew, and between the astronauts and mission controllers on the ground.
"Training and team-building will be very important," Kanas said. "Group feelings need to be monitored, and people need to talk openly about their feelings so that they can stop stresses from festering and becoming problems."
Yet, the true effect of cultural differences can often be difficult to measure, said Sandal, as the influence of culture on an individual's personality is not always clearly defined.
"There are a number of differences that might be related to culture which are potential sources of tension during isolation," she said. "But, at the same time, it may be difficult to isolate the effect of culture in small groups from individual differences. Even if we believe something may be an expression of culture, it's not always easy to make such conclusions."
No quitters in space
Similarly, while experiments like Mars500 try to accurately mimic aspects of real spaceflight, the results can sometimes have limited applications, since participants cannot be forcibly confined if they decide to quit.
"In contrast to real flights, people may feel that they have more psychological control, since we cannot keep them in the chambers if they want to get out," Sandal explained. "But at the same time, we also know that crew members have invested a lot of pride, interest and effort into these endeavors. So, I think that it's not an easy choice for them to quit an experiment."
Still, the unprecedented Mars500 mission could provide researchers with valuable data on the psychological factors that may potentially affect astronauts who one day explore Mars and beyond. The elaborate experiment could also direct attention to the importance of adequate psychological preparation prior to and following such missions.
"Psychological support and follow-up needs to be done for a long time after these missions," Sandal said. "It's extremely important for re-adaptation to normal life, and it illustrates that the responsibility of these agencies does not simply stop after the mission ends."
This will be especially true following the inaugural long-duration spaceflight, which could, in fact, be a mission to Mars.
"It's important to have support on how to handle re-entry, just as it's important to have support during the mission," Kanas said. "The first mission of anything is going to be tough. Just like the first lunar missions, if you're on the first Mars or asteroid mission, coming back, your life is going to be completely turned around."
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