Coping with Isolation - Mars 500

Should we ever want to visit our astronomical neighbours, we will first need to get over a lot of technological, physiological and psychological challenges. To find out how a long...
07 July 2011

Interview with 

Peter Graef, German Space Agency


Figure 3: Mars. This image illustrates the amount of detail that can be generated from the Hubble telescope. It captures details only 16 km across, even though it is operating at 68 million km from the planet.


Ben -  Now should we ever want to go fishing on Europa, we'll first need to get over a lot of technological, physiological and psychological challenges.  To find out how a long mission isolated from Earth would affect astronauts, Mars 500 invited a number of volunteers to simulate the experience from a specially designed facility in Russia.  Peter Graef from the German Space Agency explains why.

Peter -   Well first of all, we tried to find out what is really necessary, what do we really need to know to be in the position to send people on long missions, probably to Mars.  And the question is, how should you arrange the medical scenarios, how should you arrange the psychological support for these missions that you can really make sure that the people will come back safe?

Ben -   This has been preceded by some smaller programs.  So what have we seen so far?

Mars_from_hubblePeter -   In the last year, we did a 3-month mission to test the simulator, to test the procedures that have been developed for the crew to come over the 3 months.  We did also some experiments which were quite promising from the data point of view.  This year, we started only on June 3rd.  This is a 520-day missions and the crew has visited Mars already.  They did some activities on a surface, a simulated surface of Mars, and now they are on the way back home.  It's interesting to see what's coming now because they have to change their motivation now because before they reached Mars, they were all enthusiastic to reach the goal of the mission, to reach Mars.  But now, they have go back.  They will be really looking forward to meeting their families and friends, and whatever and see the sunlight again.  But it's a long time to go, they will arrive on Earth probably November 5th.  We'll see how they do their job now.

Ben -   What are conditions like for them?  What environment are they actually kept in?

Peter -   The simulator is based in Moscow at the Institute of Biomedical Problems in the Russian Academy of Sciences.  It's a combination of several containers.  It has 180 square metres which is 550 cubic metres volume for this 6 people.  They have living quarters where they do cooking.  They have training areas where they do physical training.  They have a medical facility where they do all the medical experiments and interventions, and they have also private areas, 3 square metres per person with a small bed, cupboard and desks, so it's not much privacy.

Ben -   Who are these people?  Are they highly trained individuals?  Do we know that these are the sorts of people we might send on space missions anyway or are we just doing this in a more general way to try and understand how any human would respond to this?

Peter -   Actually, the volunteers were selected from a group of 5,000 people in the end.  We have currently in this mission, three Russian crew members, one Chinese crew member, and two members which were sent by the European Space Agency who's contributing as well to the mission.  These guys are from France and Italy.  They were selected by psychological testing before the mission and also, medical tests were done extensively with the crew to find crew members that would fit best to such a mission and they did also some training before the mission to actually build up a team with them.  It turns out that the selection was quite nice because these six people did remarkably well in conducting all the tasks they have and as a team, they are functioning very, very properly.  They are doing a good job in conducting roughly 100 experiments.

Ben -   I would imagine that programs like this are essentially to actually inform how we go about finding the right people to actually do a mission like this.  So, the psychological profile now is based on what we think is right but we've never before sent people into this situation and may have to re-assess what it is that we look for in somebody before we actually send them to Mars.

Peter -   This is right.  We need to learn how to select the people in the mission, not only to select out who's not fitting, and this is actually the challenge the psychologists that are involved are taking that they really try to find out how to select in people for these kind of teams.  Certainly, we have to confess that at present, it's really risky to start these missions and I doubt that we would be in a position today to send people to Mars.

Ben -   So what have we learned about people in this situation so far?

The Mars 500 complexPeter -   This mission is on one hand a simulation of flight to Mars, but we can also use this experimental setup as a real experiment because we have the unique situation that you have six people that are under very controlled environment for a long period of time.  So for a lot of scientists, this is an interesting experimental setup because they can precisely go after certain questions.  We have one investigator who was interested for instance in the connection between salt intake in the daily diet and the blood pressure.  He was actually able to show that the blood pressure goes down if you reduce the salt in your daily diet, even in healthy volunteers.  And that was really not described in this precise way before.

Ben -   So in another 200 days or so, your six volunteers will come out.  What will we need to do then?  How do we need to learn from them?  What do we need to study about the changes that have taken place?

Peter -   I'm personally convinced that we will see similar missions several times before we really go to Mars, and there's also plenty of time to go to Mars because our earliest opportunity is 2033 and then 18 years further down the road, so we have time to think about it and prepare.  But certainly, we will do a very serious analysis of the data that are collected, and we also will try to do it in an interdisciplinary way so that we really cover all aspects from the psychology via the physiological effects, and also the narrative effects.  We'll get a lot of stories from the people when they really finally come out and tell the real truth about their feelings and about their experiences they had.  There's a lot of things to learn.

Ben -   Peter Graef from the German Space Agency on how Mars 500 hopes to answer some of the outstanding questions standing in the way of us visiting our astronomical neighbours.


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