Facts So Romantic

The Psychological Challenges of Just Getting to Mars

Though space may be the quintessential I.C.E. environment, Musk appears to be aiming to make trips to Mars—aspirationally scheduled to commence in 2024—as far away from I.C.E.-y as possible.Photograph by NASA

Life outside Earth has its own Hobbesian description: isolated, confined, and extreme—or I.C.E. “Space is the quintessential ICE environment,” according to a new paper, published in American Psychologist. Space includes inhospitable planets like Mars, whose arresting vistas, canyons, and mountains beckon. But only humans sealed inside cumbersome suits, trained to weather such nerve-racking circumstances, can explore them. Just getting to Mars, says Lauren Blackwell Landon, the paper’s lead author and a behavioral performance researcher at NASA, presents a major challenge. “The astronauts will be months away from home, confined to a vehicle no larger than a mid-sized RV”—the still-under-development Orion spacecraft—“for two to three years,” she says. Unlike on the International Space Station, “there will be an up to 45-minute lag on communications to and from Earth.”

Orion is NASA’s answer to the call of deep-space exploration. “It will be the safest, most advanced spacecraft ever built,” a NASA document states, “and it will be flexible and capable enough to take us to a variety of destinations,” including the moons of Mars and, by the mid or late 2030s, the red planet itself. Landon and her co-authors, Kelley J. Slack and Jamie D. Barrett, worry about how a crew of four, Orion’s max capacity, will fare on the journey. They will be “operating in extreme isolation and confinement,” the authors write. “Special considerations,” like screening for certain personality traits, for example, “must be made to enhance teamwork and team well-being…”

This may be true for astronauts aboard Orion. But perhaps not aboard SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket, or B.F.R., which began construction in March. “The BFR is the big dream,” Alan Boyle, a veteran space journalist and a science editor at Geekwire, said. “It’s what will fulfill Musk’s goal of getting to Mars.” With 40 cabins, it can house upwards of a 200-person crew. “You could conceivably have five or six people per cabin, if you wanted to cram people in,” Musk said last year, in a presentation of the the B.F.R. “But, mostly, we would expect to see two to three people per cabin, so normally about a hundred people per flight to Mars.” Those passengers will also, according to current plans, have “large common areas” at their disposal, with at least one dedicated, Musk added, to “entertainment.” In other words, though space may be the quintessential I.C.E. environment, Musk appears to be aiming to make trips there—aspirationally scheduled to commence in 2024—as far away from I.C.E.-y as possible.


It might be a good thing that the Orion spacecraft won’t be taking any astronauts to Mars in the near future. It’s a journey NASA may not know how to train for. Landon and her colleagues write:

First, few astronauts have participated in long-duration space missions, and there is a limited number of analog missions per year…Second, researchers and astronauts from different cultures may use disparate models. Third, astronauts have a heavy nominal workload, leaving little time for answering surveys or participating in teamwork research related to mission experiences. Fourth, there is a lack of standard measures, both in spaceflight studies and spaceflight analog studies, further restricting total sample sizes and the comparison of findings across isolated, confined, extreme environments. Due to lack of data from spaceflight and spaceflight analog environments, meta-analysis is simply not a viable option for examining many of the different factors that will be critical to teams on a Mars mission.

One recently completed analog study, sponsored by NASA, is HI-SEAS—Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation. Without real-time communication to the outside world, six crew members lived and worked for over a year 8,000 feet above sea level, in a dome around the size of a 3-bedroom apartment, to help figure out how well an isolated and confined team could perform as a Mars research outpost. After a few months in, Sheyna Gifford, the crew’s physician, wrote for Nautilus about the surprising lack of “asthenia”—a word that the Russian space program used to describe the way the banality of routine can sap a cosmonaut’s strength.

“Whether in real or simulated space, the daily and weekly regimentation of everything we do for the sake of safety and efficiency—like swapping air filters, filing reports with ground control, running someone else’s experiments, and so on—as well as our lack of power to break or even affect the pattern, can become oppressive,” she wrote. “Yet, through it all, asthenia has yet to appear. Here’s why, I think: On [simulated] Mars, each of us knows how un-alone we are and how essential each person on our mission is. The doctor, the biologist, the physicist, the soil scientist, the engineer, and the architect count on each other for nearly everything we need.”

Psychological reports like these, Landon and her colleagues say, are valuable despite spaceflight itself not being part of the simulation. “Fortunately, even with a disconnect between the physical environments of analogs and spaceflight, psychological fidelity can be achieved,” they write. “When talking to the astronaut corps about his recent trip searching for meteorites on the surface of Antarctica, Don Pettit, an astronaut with experience on two ISS missions, stated that although the ‘physics’ of Antarctica might be ‘wrong,’ the psychological ‘mind-set’ was right.”

Along with needing several more years’ worth of data on what promotes and hinders teamwork on long-duration missions in I.C.E. environments, NASA will also need to be more empirical in its team-selection process, the authors write. “NASA currently does not use a scientifically based approach to composing teams, but this knowledge gap is scheduled to be filled by the 2020s.” Going to Mars on Orion is such a high-stress, high-pressure scenario that aspects of personality and background that don’t normally merit close attention start to matter to team functioning. “Given that nuanced and deep-level characteristics of values, culture, and humor are important for successful long-term teamwork, more research is needed into long-duration, international teams and data-driven methods of team composition that may be applied across cultures,” Landon and her colleagues write. “A team living together for multiple years will be required to not only perform task assignments effectively but also fulfill social roles within the team,” like being the one who can be counted on to ease tensions by cracking jokes.

If SpaceX’s B.F.R. avoids some of the challenges of an Orion-style mission to Mars, it also creates new ones—like how to have around 200 people, arriving on two B.F.R.s accompanied by two cargo-filled ones, survive on an alien planet while building the rudiments of a settlement. If things go according to plan, those first explorers will also find two other B.F.R.s filled with cargo—to be launched in 2022—waiting for them. “We should—particularly with six ships there—have plenty of landed mass to construct the [rocket] propellant depot, which will consist of a large array of solar panels, and then everything necessary to mine and refine water, draw the CO2 out of the atmosphere, and then create and store deep cryo CH4 and O2,” Musk wrote in a New Space paper. The more granular details of how six ships transform into a Mars base are undecided. But there’s little doubt that it’ll take teamwork, among other things, to start “terraforming Mars,” as Musk says, “and making it a really nice place to be.”

Brian Gallagher is the editor of Facts So Romantic, the Nautilus blog. Follow him on Twitter @brianga11agher.

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