Floris van den Berg, an expedition doctor from the Netherlands who has traveled to more than 40 countries, is spending a year at Antarctica’s Concordia Station, one of the Earth’s most isolated places. Van den Berg’s stint on the lonely continent is part of an initiative by the European Space Agency to study how astronauts would fare physically and mentally during and after the long journey to Mars.
NASA estimates that a one-way trip to Mars will take eight months with our current technology. When astronaut Scott Kelly spent his year in space, he was aboard the International Space Station for twice as long as the usual ISS stay. So, an eight-month one-way ticket to a desolate planet poses extremely stressful and unique mental and physical hurdles for astronauts to overcome. That’s why experiments such as Kelly’s long stay in space and van den Berg’s research are so vital to ensuring that future manned missions to Mars will be safe for space travelers.
Not only do astronauts have to survive the long and grueling flight in zero gravity, but also when they arrive on Mars, they must perform a variety of complicated tasks to ensure their safe landing on the red planet. One of van den Berg’s experiments involves observing his team as they attempt to land a Soyuz capsule in a flight simulator on the base. The team of 12 people is split into two groups which practice on the simulator at different time intervals. One half performs its test every month, while the other half only uses the flight simulator every three months. The differences in their abilities will reveal how time affects their skill levels.
Van den Berg told Motherboard in a Skype interview, “The idea is, if you send people to Mars and they’re going to be in a spaceship for six to nine months they’ll probably get a bit bored, but when they arrive at Mars they have to be quite focused on how to land the Mars lander.” Finding individuals who can not only brave the long trip through space, but also be able to function at the end of the trip will be a difficult task for space agencies.
Mental aptitude is not all van den Berg researches at Concordia. He also observes how the 12 crew members on the base interact with each other socially. He tracks how much time they spend in their rooms apart from other people and how their behavior changes over time.
Space travel also takes a toll on the human body, so van den Berg observes the crew's physical well-being. Antarctica boasts decreased levels of oxygen (a third less than normal) due to its altitude of 10,500 feet above sea level. This allows for a terrestrial simulation of the decreased O2 levels that await future astronauts in space. To ensure their health and to see what happens to people under long-term decreased oxygen levels, van den Berg regularly checks his team members' bone density and blood flow. Van den Berg also notes that bone density and circulation aren’t the only issues saying, “Because of the lack of oxygen, you see stress hormones go up quite a bit, which sort of suppresses the immunological response.”
As van den Berg and others’ research into isolation science continues, more information will come to light on how humans might react to long-term, long-distance space travel. We have a lot for which to thank these pioneers. Not many people would be willing to isolate themselves from society and creature comforts.
For more information into life in Antarctica, follow Floris van den Berg on his blog. His summary of Concordia is insightful, “Isolation. Not that many places are truly this isolated. I’ve set foot in many ‘remote’ places, but each time there was the comforting knowledge that in a max of 4 days I could be back home. Here it’s different. Here it's just ‘us’: 5 Italians, 6 French and one Dutch guy in the middle of White Mars.”