Friday, July 25, 2014
Last updated: 5 days ago

Science | Mars on the mind

In 1954, German-American rocket scientist Werner von Braun wrote that the technical knowledge necessary for a manned mission to Mars would very soon be available. Half a century later, astronauts have yet to travel beyond the 400,000 kilometres separating Earth from its moon—a distance traveled by only 24 humans in history and by none since 1972.  Last year, American president Barack Obama sparked renewed interest in reaching this aging milestone when he predicted a manned US mission to orbit the red planet by the mid-2030s.

Still, a number of hurdles keep Mars, which at its closest orbits 55 million kilometres from Earth, out of reach. Most of the barriers are technical, though some have also questioned whether astronauts could handle the psychological stresses that the estimated 17 month round-trip would impose.

Seven male astronauts were sealed inside a mock spaceship last June to test the effects of long-term space travel. When they finally leave after 520 days, they’ll find themselves in the same Moscow facility that they started out in, but $100,000 US richer and slightly older.  This experiment is the final phase of a Russian project dubbed the ‘Mars 500,’ the longest simulation so far of the tedium, stress and isolation expected during the long flight to Mars.

Some scientists dismiss the idea of manned space exploration altogether, arguing that the expense and risk to human life are not justified when relatively cheap robotic probes are so readily available.

Even von Braun had doubts: “Can a man retain his sanity while cooped up with many other men in a crowded area for more than 30 months?” he said. “Little mannerisms—the way a man cracks his knuckles, blows his nose, the way he grins, talks or gestures—might create tension or hatred leading to murder.”

Though no homicides have been recorded in the short history of space travel, there have been examples of missions that ran into trouble. In 1982, a then-record-breaking 211-day Soviet mission to the Salyut 7 space station passed by in tense silence after the two cosmonauts had a disagreement shortly after launch. And in 1999, a Russian mission got out of hand during a New Year’s Eve celebration when an argument between two crewmen devolved into a bloody brawl. Shortly afterwards, another crew member forcibly kissed the only woman on board, Canadian astronaut Judith Lapierre.

Ironically, that 240-day mission in Moscow took place inside a fake spaceship as part of a project looking at the impact of space travel on human mental health and behaviour.

UBC psychologist Peter Suedfeld said that such incidents are actually quite rare.

“Astronauts are selected very carefully, and space agencies ensure that the crew train, travel and even live together,” he says. “It’s rare for things to go wrong once a mission is underway.”

Episodes like the 1999 Russian mission are often a product of improper training, he said, “Though in that particular case, the main problem was that the Russians were drunk.”

That may explain why most scientific voyages to the Antarctic are nowadays kept dry.  This, says UBC oceanographer Brian Hunt, means that people must devise more creative means of retaining sanity during the long months at sea.

“People like to organize events—movie nights, talent shows or playing music for each other,” says Hunt, a veteran of eight polar voyages. “It’s important to have something to look forward to outside of the work.”

Along with women and vodka, events are another thing that the astronauts sealed in the Mars 500 space capsule won’t have. UBC astronomy professor Jaymie Matthews says he harbours mixed feelings about the future of manned space flight.

“You could learn a lot more about Mars, a lot faster and a lot cheaper with robotic exploration,” he admitted. “However, I would likely be a different person had it not been for the years in which I grew up—watching an epic of human space exploration  unfold during the Apollo missions. Yes, part of me would really love to see people go to Mars; but the reasons aren’t really scientific.”

If we’re going to watch humans travel to Mars by the 2030s, a number of technological, financial and political obstacles must be overcome. While we’re waiting, seven guys in a Moscow research centre will be working out whether astronauts are ready for the psychological challenges that lie ahead.