I had often wondered about what it would be like to be an astronaut. Ever since I was a child, I longed to be one of those intrepid explorers of the cosmos. Alas, God had his own plans for me, since he blessed me with particularly poor eyesight and forever dashed my hopes for daring-do in space."But," I thought, "What would I truly be in for?"

The trip to Mars by most accounts would take about 18 months to complete round trip. Call it about 500 days. That's a long time away from home and familiar and comfortable surroundings. I looked into what research had been done on how people manage in long periods of isolation.

The truth is that there have been very few studies that would simulate effectively that kind of experience.

The experience of being in relatively close quarters, with relatively few people, for a very long time, has happened fairly rarely for people. Some of information that we do have comes from extended stays on the International Space station of from MIR cosmonauts. There has also been work done with military personal aboard submarines and over-wintering teams in the Antarctic winters. But even these kinds of conditions seldom combine the length of isolation, few personal contacts and limited space.

Hundreds of humans have now participated in missions that required the occupancy of spacecraft vehicles or space stations for periods of up to several months or in some cases a year or more under generally adverse environmental and behavioral conditions. Living space is confined, food is restricted in quality and diversity, there is a lack of privacy, and facilities for personal hygiene are limited. The quality of the environment provided by artificial life-support systems, compounded by high noise levels and unpleasant odors, is hardly comparable to that on earth. Weightlessness requires motor and perceptual readjustments under conditions in which disorientation and motion sickness are common, at least during the initial exposure to space. Social interactions are limited, and sexual activity is constrained. Only distant and remote communication with family and friends is possible.

Workloads can be demanding and stressful, with the ever-present danger of a major life-threatening system failure. All of these restrictions occur under conditions that make no provision for escape, at least during missions beyond earth orbit. I had discovered in my reading that more than one space mission had be cut short for reasons at least partly psychological.

So, I read with interest this week about a project that is a joint venture between European Space Agency's Directorate of Human Spaceflight and the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems. This venture has as its task to gather as much psychological information as possible from an extended and controlled study in an environment much as we described above.

A team of eight volunteers were put through a rigorous program of examination to take part in and isolation experiment. This experiment would choose a "crew" of six men from the eight to live sleep eat and interact in a sealed laboratory in Moscow that would simulate a Martian mission. This first "mission" will last 105 days. They will start this program in March of 2009. This is a precursor to a shakedown mission later on in the year that will last roughly the 520 days that a full mission might take.

This experiment would also assess the efficacy of certain medicines and vitamin supplements that might be used on a space mission. The researchers will also be monitoring mood, morale and hormone regulation.

All of a sudden maybe this real life - not "Star Trek" - space program stuff might not be all it's cracked up to be. Eighteen months can be an awfully long time for that short jaunt to Mars.

o Roger Taylor is an amateur astronomer and a member of the Astronomical League.

comments powered by Disqus