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Can We Go to Mars Without Going Crazy?

Forget about the technical problems. What we really have to worry about is what seven astronauts will do to one another after being locked up in a tiny capsule for nine months

By William Speed Weed
May 1, 2001 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 6:33 AM


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When John Glenn became the first astronaut to orbit Earth on February 20, 1962, he had to endure the Mercury capsule's measly 36 cubic feet of space for only four hours and 55 minutes. When he rode the space shuttle Discovery 36 years later— for eight days and 20 hours— each crew member got 332 cubic feet of space.

Photo courtesy of NASA

Aboard the Belgica, off Antarctica, May 20, 1898:

As the snow swirls and temperatures plummet below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, explorer Frederick Cook, stuck with his men on an icebound ship, writes in his log: "We are as tired of each other's company as we are of the cold monotony of the black night and of the unpalatable sameness of our food. Physically, mentally, and perhaps morally, then, we are depressed, and from my past experience I know that this depression will increase."

Space station Mir, June 25, 1997:

As an unmanned Russian supply ship from Earth draws toward him, commander Vasily Tsibliyev floats before a set of remote controls, trying desperately to guide the incoming module to a safe docking. American astronaut Mike Foale and cosmonaut Sasha Lazutkin peer anxiously from portholes. Their commander is exhausted. His mental health has deteriorated under the stress of living in this bizarre miniature world for more than four months. He has already endured an onboard fire that nearly burned through Mir's hull; he has been overwhelmed by a grueling schedule of repairs; he has fought and bickered with Foale's predecessor, American astronaut Jerry Linenger; and he hasn't been sleeping well. Russian psychologists suspect he is exhausted, neurotic, and depressed. Suddenly, as the supply ship comes into view, everyone can see it's off course. Tsibliyev struggles with the controls, but within seconds the wayward rocket slams into Mir's Spektr module. Precious oxygen begins to hiss into the void of space. Foale lurches to power up Mir's escape module while Lazutkin rushes to seal off Spektr. Tsibliyev seems dazed at the controls, like the brokenhearted captain of a sinking ship. "I didn't manage to turn it away," he radios to ground control. "Everything was going on fine, but then, God knows why, [the supply ship] started to accelerate."

Mir, as a supply ship might see it on approach.

Photo courtesy of NASA

Mars Flyer isolation chamber, Institute of Biomedical Problems, Moscow, Russia, December 31, 1999:

During a New Year's Eve celebration held by the international crew, two Russian cosmonauts break into a fistfight, splattering blood on the module walls. Afterward, one of the cosmonauts presses unwelcome kisses on Canadian crew member Judith LaPierre. He brushes it off as a harmless moment; she sees it as a prelude to rape. The institute's mission control seals the hatches between the Russian crew's and the international crew's living quarters.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is 43 years old, but its mythology is already deep. The space program is built around a concept called "the right stuff," which means that both astronauts and engineers have what it takes to handle any situation no matter how tricky it gets. NASA selects superheroes who never lose their cool to pilot spacecraft and hires the genius engineers who can design a carbon-dioxide filter out of spare parts to save the crew of Apollo 13. But NASA's experience putting more than three astronauts into space for longer than two weeks is limited. And with the agency looking at long-distance space travel like a trip to Mars, a new message has begun to emerge: The right stuff is not what we thought it was. Designing and building a sophisticated spacecraft capable of getting to Mars is just the beginning. The ultimate challenge NASA faces may be building a tiny computer that can psychoanalyze astronauts and keep them from going nuts.

Most of the warnings about a Mars trip have come from astronauts who spent months aboard Mir. When the first Mir astronaut, Norm Thagard, returned to Earth in 1995, he told debriefers that psychological challenges were the toughest part of his mission. The last Mir astronaut, Andy Thomas, says that without intense efforts to solve the psychological problems of a group of astronauts confined to a small space for months, "the mission will fail." Russian cosmonaut Valery Ryumin says succinctly, "All the conditions necessary for murder are met if you shut two men in a cabin and leave them together for two months."

Mir, after a supply ship rammed it in June 1997. The United States paid the Russians $400 million in 1994 to keep Mir aloft and allow astronauts aboard for lengthy stays. It flew for 15 years.

Photo courtesy of NASA

"Imagine taking a trip cross-country with your family," says Mark Shepanek, a psychologist and NASA's manager of aerospace medicine. "Now imagine that it lasts for months on end. And that you can't open the windows. You can't even get out of the car. The bathroom and the meals are in the car with you. Think there might be a problem getting along?"

Of course, a trip to Mars will be considerably longer and more stressful. It will most likely take three years: nine months each way and a year and a half on the surface. And the "family" will be scientists and pilots in their forties and fifties, the average age range of astronauts in their prime. Seven is the most popular guess of how many will be in the crew. The craft will be larger than a car but probably not larger than a Boeing 747 airliner, much of it devoted to fuel and supplies. Once astronauts get to the Red Planet, they'll be able to stretch out a bit on the surface. But there will be no walks on the beach, no dinners out, no fresh air. And there will be no way for the astronauts to get away from one another.

Thomas says each astronaut will "have to be strong enough to deal with what you perceive as"— he pauses here to be diplomatic— "not imperfections, but differences between you and them."

As soon as the Mars astronauts pass the moon, they will be the farthest flung human beings ever. And at one point during their stay on the Red Planet, the Earth may be 249 million miles away. The distance from home will be obvious to the astronauts in ways no one has ever experienced before. To begin with, a Mars crew won't have what Thomas called his favorite pastime while on Mir: looking at the ever-changing face of Earth. "They'll just have a black void. There won't be any Earth to see. After a few days, they'll be so far away that it will just be a speck." Meanwhile, the time delay in communications will grow to more than 10 minutes long, and the astronauts will not be able to have a phone conversation with anyone back on Earth. E-mail and voice mail will be their only way of learning about the wife's new job, the daughter's college career, the son's new girlfriend. And their homesickness could be fraught with terror. "We knew on Mir that we could be down on the ground within hours." Thomas says. "They won't have that. "

Boredom doesn't have a chance to set in on U.S. shuttle flights, which last no longer than a month. The crew, which can number eight, works intensely throughout the mission. Above: Discovery's flight deck, where astronauts pilot the ship.

Photo courtesy of NASA

One key factor to surviving such stresses may be how different each crew member is from the others. Sociologist Marilyn Dudley-Rowley, chief research scientist at OPS-Alaska, an extreme-environments research firm, recently surveyed Antarctic and Arctic expeditions as well as Russian and American spaceflights. In her analysis, groups made up of similar people— white, military, American males, in one instance— had more interpersonal problems than did heterogeneous groups. People of different backgrounds, she says, have more to teach one another over the long haul than do people who are exactly alike. Thomas agrees: Even after months on Mir, he was still excited to learn Russian culture and language from crewmates.

Gender, says JoAnna Wood, a Baylor College of Medicine psychologist, may be irrelevant: "We tend to think that men have this quality and women have that, but it's not true. There are nonaggressive men, and non-nurturing women. All-male teams have done well in the Antarctic, as have mixed groups." An all-female team, a group of German women who spent the austral winter of 1985 at Antarctica's Georg Von Neumayer station, got along famously.

Wood studies groups at four Antarctic research stations each year. Crew members fill out a lengthy, standardized personality test and then answer a weekly questionnaire. Questions include: "To what extent do you think the rest of the team is listening to your ideas?" "To what extent have you felt tense or on edge?" "To what extent have you felt tired of some (or all) of the members of your team?" Wood is reluctant to draw conclusions until she gets more data, but so far her work suggests that an ideal Mars crew would have a range of personalities: "I'd want at least one person, but not more than one, who is really good at taking charge in a crisis. I'd want someone who is naturally a counselor, who takes care of other people's emotional needs. I don't want everyone to be like that. Then they'd get nothing done." She is also convinced that "for Mars, everyone's got to have a sense of humor about life. The trip is going to be full of surprises, and people who have rigid expectations are not going to be any fun."

Reminders of loved ones on Earth will help keep Mars-bound travelers sane. Astronaut Charles Duke carried a photo of himself and his family taken in their Houston backyard on his 1972 Apollo 16 flight to the moon— and left it there.

Photo courtesy of NASA

Lawrence Palinkas, a medical anthropologist at the University of California at San Diego who also tracks behavior in Antarctic groups, agrees. People who are type A overachievers and extroverts, he says, are far more prone to depression and anxiety in close quarters than are quiet, self-contented personalities. His findings suggest that the ideal test pilot that NASA sought out in its early days would be a miserable, if not dangerous, choice for a Mars mission. Wood's work suggests that seven of them would be a catastrophe.

Of course there is one more psychological factor in a Mars trip that may complicate everything: fear of death. Astronaut David Wolf, who lived on Mir in 1997, says it doesn't take much to remind you just how thin those walls are that separate you from the vacuum of space. "The fear of death is a great psychological stressor— in every person in every context," adds psychologist David Dinges of the University of Pennsylvania, who helps coordinate NASA grants to study space psychology. And there are plenty of emergencies on a Mars trip to conjure up death, including a meteor striking the capsule, an oxygen tank exploding, a solar panel malfunctioning, a spacewalker needing rescue, even a heart attack. What if an astronaut falls victim to late-onset bipolar disease, a manic-depression that can strike unexpectedly in middle age? The ship will be equipped, as is the International Space Station, with pharmaceuticals, but what then? Carry around a disturbed astronaut for the rest of the mission?

Ironically, what may ultimately keep astronauts sane is a new form of space-age technology— a therapist in a box. Dartmouth University physiologist Jay Buckey and clinical psychologist James Carter recently received a NASA grant to design a prototype of computer software that could someday monitor each astronaut's mental health, advise on medication, and conduct therapeutic exercises. Such a device would have to be an early-response tool because even slight mental problems can be dangerous in space. Tsibliyev wasn't over the edge when he nearly scuttled Mir; he was just having a bad month. If the commander of the Mars mission has a bad month when he tries to land the spaceship after a nine-month journey, the result could be catastrophic. Even if a human therapist is on board, that astronaut might be subject to the same stresses as other crew members.

After nine months of boredom, the Mars crew will have to suddenly snap to and operate with split-second precision to land on the Red Planet. Training together is key. Here, the crew of Apollo 14— Edgar D. Mitchell, Stuart A. Roosa, and Alan B. Shepard Jr.— practices moves in a simulator at the Kennedy Space Center.

Photo courtesy of NASA

A silicon psychologist, says Dinges, would have to be able to read the often-subtle clues that attend psychological conditions— and research is well under way toward that goal. Computers can already monitor immediate clues such as blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, and sweat-gland activity. Researchers have found that stress can be monitored by measuring levels of the hormone cortisol in saliva. Over the next few years, NASA plans to fund biologists looking for hormones and proteins that signal depression, anxiety, exhaustion, and even subtle neuroses.

Dinges is also working with University of Pennsylvania computer scientist Dmitris Metaxas to teach computers to recognize anger, sadness, nervousness, and other emotions in a human face. He has already taught a computer to read sign language, which is an important parallel: Just as each signer "speaks" slightly differently, each human face registers emotions slightly differently.

NASA psychiatrist Christopher Flynn adds another crucial measurement a computer could monitor: astronaut performance. "Kids first show signs of trouble at school in their grades," he says. Similarly, an astronaut suffering cabin fever may exhibit performance problems while going about daily chores. Flynn developed a computer test called the Spaceflight Cognitive Assessment Tool that crew members use aboard the International Space Station. It's a series of puzzles and problems that test an astronaut's response time and accuracy. If an astronaut's score goes down, it warns him that he's off his game. Then he might make sure he gets some rest before he takes another space walk. For the Mars mission, Flynn imagines a silicon psychiatrist quietly monitoring astronauts' daily assignments to check for even microseconds of mental slowdown. Flynn is also optimistic that a silicon psychiatrist can be used to help prescribe various psychopharmaceuticals.

Dinges says there are two challenges to making a computer that can conduct humanlike talk therapy. First, even if it never really understands language, it has to seem as if it does. Running on an intricate series of if-then commands (If an astronaut says, "I'm kind of sad today," then the computer responds, "Tell me why you say that"), computers can already seem intelligent until a person says something illogical. "It's just a question of complexity," Dinges says. The second challenge is to endow the silicon therapist with enough apparent "emotion" to seem trustworthy.

Research already shows that human beings are willing to accept emotions from computers, even if they know that emotion is ersatz. The Affective Computing Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has devised a program called CASPER, short for Computer-Aided Support for Personal Emotional Regulation. In an experiment, researchers asked people to play a game on computers that were preset to go a bit haywire. CASPER then asked the players about their level of frustration. When it reached a certain degree, CASPER apologized. Compared with players who faced an unsympathetic computer, those who interacted with CASPER were more likely to continue with the game.

NASA psychiatrist Flynn isn't inclined to believe that astronauts will respond to emotional therapy from computers, but he admits it is at least possible. "Well, we all suspend disbelief at times," he says. "That's why people go to the movies. Of course that's not real therapy, and it won't treat underlying problems." But neither will drugs, say most psychologists, and underlying problems are not the point. Tsibliyev was not off his game because of some lifelong anxiety about his relationship with his mother or father. He was off because he had been cooped up in tight quarters away from home, with an astronaut he didn't like, under constant threat of death.

The Mars team members will spend up to a year and a half on the Red Planet, then cram themselves back into their spacecraft for the long haul back to Mother Earth 249 million miles away.Photo courtesy of NASA

"This is high-risk research," says Dinges. "No one knows if science can do this, but that's what we want to find out. Can we come up with an algorithm, taking all this data, that can tell the astronaut, 'Hey, you're moving from the green to the yellow'; or, 'Hey, you're in the red' on his ability to perform on-the-ball tasks? If the computer can catch depression, anxiety, psychomotor retardation, and the like, then it can warn of danger before it happens."

"I'd like to monitor mood, anxiety, cognition, and group dynamics," says Flynn. "And I'd like to have a predictor of whether you should stop working." Flynn, Shepanek, and Dinges all hope the therapist in a box will be able to present options to an astronaut. Dinges imagines suggestions like these the computer might make: "Option one: Do a course of cognitive-therapy tapes that were put together by your mentor on Earth— a series of positive thoughts for you to focus on and improve your mood. Option two: Would you like to take a mild antidepressant? Option three: Would you like to take an hour out of your work schedule and rest a bit more?"

Despite all the evidence that the mental challenges of a manned mission to Mars will be formidable, NASA has a history of discounting psychology. Psychology professor Albert Harrison at the University of California at Davis says NASA has halted valuable psychological research in the past, suppressed or destroyed study results, and denied access to reporters who even mentioned psychological problems with astronauts. NASA's budget for psychological studies is only about $3 million annually, far less than the agency's public relations budget. Although many psychologists think the International Space Station should be a major laboratory for them, only one purely psychological study has been scheduled.

Shepanek hopes he can get NASA administrators to devote more money to psychological studies. Acting out the sort of dialogue he tries to hold with them, he asks: "Don't you like sitting in a chair that doesn't hurt your back?" "Well, yes I do!" "Well, wouldn't you like to go on a space mission that didn't hurt your brain? Or make you emotionally crippled?" The goal, he says with a smile, is to "get to the point where designing the mission psychologically and emotionally is as second nature as making sure that the thing doesn't blow up in launch." And NASA's pretty good at launch design.

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