Mars on the Mind: The Psychology of Space Exploration

by James Franke

Imagine launching off 140 million miles away from your home. 140 million miles away from every place you've ever been, every person you've ever known, everybody you've ever loved. Now imagine you are making this trip over approximately 520 days in the comfort of a small, metal vehicle carrying a few crew members and the supplies that will keep you alive during this trip. These are the circumstances under which the bravest astronauts will make mankind's next giant leap: a manned mission to Mars.

The ordinary astronaut is the extraordinary human. The essence of an astronaut is characterized by the pushing of technological boundaries, the testing of mankind's greatest attempts at harnessing the future. While a plethora of great technological weaknesses must first be tackled before a Mars mission is possible, there is also the inherent weakness of the humanity of making the expedition. While most find the technological aspect to be of greater importance, it is the human aspect of long-duration space travel that will ultimately determine the success of the mission.

Currently, the International Space Station (ISS) is hosting a yearlong experiment testing the influence of space on the human body. American astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko are orbiting Earth in the midst of their yearlong stay on the ISS, twice as long as any astronaut has orbited before them. While the ISS experiment is mostly focused on the physical effects of spending a year in space, researchers have continued to uncover some important details about the psychology of living in space.

For the last decade, researchers have been observing journal entries from the astronauts regarding small disagreements and discrepancies that have surfaced between mission control and other astronauts onboard the ISS. Their findings have helped bring to light the importance of daily communal rituals onboard the space station as well as the “third quarter effect,” or the disillusionment that occurs halfway through an expedition, when astronauts realize how much farther they have yet to go. These ISS experiments are providing crucial insight into the real journey to Mars. But to what extent can these experiments test the psychological conditions of a real Mars expedition?

Think about it. Are humans prone to depression and mental health issues in an isolated, metal vehicle hurdling through the deadly vacuum of space towards an uninhabited planet over a few years? Or, are they more prone to mental health issues on Earth, where counseling and therapy services are more readily available? In analogous conditions, psychologists in the 1960s observed the “severe psychological dysfunction” of living and working under extreme Antarctic conditions for several months. Similarly, in 2011, the European Space Agency experimentally secluded six volunteers in a mock spacecraft for 520 days to observe the psychological stressors of isolation. The results were optimistic, showing little to no psychological disturbances, and mostly confirmed the strength of social interaction in the face of isolation. So, why do people become psychologically unstable in Antarctica, but survive the experimental isolation in space experiments?

The nature of the isolation may be the key difference. Humans isolated in Antarctica have no means of escaping their solitude, as planes do not land during the winter months. In staged experiments, however, leaving the vehiclemeans quitting the experiment, contrary to realistically being killed by the conditions in the vacuum of space or the cold winter of Antarctica. These factors may be hard to research, but they must be taken into consideration before any Earthling ventures to Mars.

Undoubtedly, astronauts on long-distance and long-duration space flights will face prolonged periods of stress, boredom, depression and a lack of counseling services to cope with these psychological obstacles. One ongoing experiment is studying the human mind under these conditions. In August 2015, six researchers ventured into a deserted portion of Hawaii for one year to determine the cost of isolation from outside people. In some ways, this experiment will enhance our knowledge of how humans react to seclusion from society in small groups.

The addition of crewmates would also weigh in on the astronautsminds. On future space exploration expeditions, small teams of astronauts may be assembled to increase the efficacy of the mission. Teams of astronauts are more likely to provide support for each other as well as fulfill crucial social roles onboard the exploration vehicles. Obtaining a healthy group dynamic may prove to be extremely difficult when trying to organize a competent and well-trained crew. While a heterogeneous grouping would create a socially balanced team, there is damaging potential for cultural disputes and romantic involvement.

Multicultural crews can face disputes over small onboard happenings due to differing traditions and cultural tastes. Also, the issue of sexual relations between crew members would need to be addressed. Accordingly, they would need to be well trained in conflict resolution and mediation to avoid any damaging disputes. These skills would need to be strong enough to maintain an effective and peaceful crew for the entire span of the trip. Team members may also need to function as peer counselors for psychological problems or other emotional issues that may arise.

Space exploration is often seen as the true testament to the technological accomplishment of mankind. While this may be true, humans must also overcome great psychological obstacles before any of this new technology is put to use. Will our minds be both responsible for the creation of space travel as well as the force that precludes it from expanding the human realm of exploration? In the end, it may be our humanity that prevents us from doing what humans do best.