Journey to Mars

1. Manned Mars mission: The big picture

2. Is it wise?

3. Blasted by a ray gun

4. Can't we get along?

Want to study human interaction in space? Better book a flight to Antarctica.

The South Pole Station: The U.S. station at the South Pole has been occupied since 1957, although the dome was built in 1975. The ice below is almost 2 miles deep. Would you like to be one of the 30 people who enjoy wintering here? We forgot to mention: You can only get here between November 1 and mid-February. If this sounds crowded or isolated, you may be poor material for a Mars expedition. Photo: NASA

Home-sweet-home on Mars, in one artist's rendition. Image: NASA

In the chicken coop?
The prospect of being cooped up with a crew of space cadets in a hurtling tin can for a 6-month voyage to Mars may lack a certain allure for anybody who's ever been stuck with a bum roommate. How are the experts trying to make sure that minor annoyances, irritating habits and ethical quandaries don't threaten the entire mission?

'Can't we get along?' says the War-maid of MarsIt's not clear whether such "human factors" have impaired previous missions, but NASA does seem to be taking the threat seriously as it approaches longer voyages. The agency has funded the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, which pays a group to study psychology, sociology, and neurology and behavior.

While the details on discord and distrust in orbit are private, "the fact that psychosocial issues have been elevated to a very high priority level ... at the level of bone loss and radiation problems, indicates that they have occurred," says research program director David Dinges, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. It's possible, he says, that strife may have cut the effectiveness or shortened the schedule of some missions.

Cold comfort
One good place to study intense, long-term interactions in cramped quarters is the Antarctic. JoAnna Wood of Johnson Space Center has looked at four Australian Antarctic stations, where the isolation period often reaches eight months. She says many of the problems would be familiar to anybody who's put up with a rotten roommate. "It's primarily interpersonal tensions, disagreements, fights, hurt feelings, acting out, complaints, and bad behavior... There will be complaints about people not doing their part of station maintenance -- everybody has housekeeping chores."

Cave-like south pole station nestled in the snow.

If this seems like an exaggeration of typical roommate problems, that's because these folks are, well, roommates. "They are living together in a family-style environment, and we know families don't always get along," Wood says. "People behave there pretty much the way they do otherwise, with the same kinds of problems and responses, but they have fewer outlets, fewer ways to deal with things."

As you might expect, things get worse over time.

Based on answers to a weekly questionnaire, filled out by the Australian researchers, Wood is studying individual differences and group interactions. "We're starting to triangulate, to look at what conditions, what things cause disruption, discomfort for the people, and what things they do to cope."

Good leadership is essential, Wood says. "They need to be able to be supportive, to solve problems, to listen when people talk." Two traits that are not in demand are micromanagement ("that drives people crazy; a person who has all the answers, but usually to the wrong questions," Wood says), and seeming to play favorites among crew members.

On a long mission, Dinges says, members of an isolated team may start to view the mission control, "as not exactly hostile, but not entirely sympathetic to their condition." The phenomenon, which has appeared in earlier explorations as well as in psychology experiments, may have a positive side, he suggests. "You can speculate that it may be healthy, you displace tensions that might develop within a team" toward someone far away, but it can also disrupt the essential interaction with the ground."

Illustration of scientists in underground lab on Mars.

Long time, plenty see
The first line of defense against psychosocial problems, Dinges says, is to prevent them with careful team selection. "But people being people, it's obvious that it's not possible to prevent everything," he adds. "We can't anticipate everything, so the next component is to detect or monitor. We need objective technology to tell us when someone is emotionally incapacitated, very stressed, or not getting along."

The subject being space travel, you'd bet R2D2 cannot be far behind. Indeed, NASA plans high-tech gadgets to maintain peace in the psychosocial department. "So much of what's been done on Earth, using behavioral evaluation and assessment works very well," says Dinges, "but in space, we're not going to have a psychologist or psychiatrist along, so we'll be looking at technology to help us."

The gadgets, still under development, include electronic systems to analyze an astronaut's mental condition through voice, facial expression, or the ability to play video games.

alien carries woman From there, it's just a short jump to computer-based therapy -- or at least a computer based system that provides information and lessons on solving conflict.

It sounds a trifle Orwellian, but a computer could provide advice, together with animations, actors, or role-playing, or deliver diagnoses for psychological woes. "Computer-based technology will probably end up as an essential part" of taking care of the emotional and interactive needs of astronauts, says Dinges.

You could take care of business in our bibliography.

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