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A Hitchhiker's Guide to Astrobiology

Looking for Microbial Martians

Space on Earth

Summary (Apr 27, 2006): The European Space Agency doesn't have any concrete plans to send humans to Mars, but they've already begun making preparations for the trip. A small Italian-French crew is currently spending a year in a remote Antarctic research station, to learn how to handle the individual psychological problems and the stresses on group dynamics that can occur under such difficult, isolated conditions.

Martian Methane Ice


Europeans psych themselves up for a trip to Mars

Concordia station in Antarctica used space technology for water recycling. Credit: ESA

Last December a second Italian-French crew took up residence in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth. They will stay there for over a year; nine months of this will be winter, with no visitors and no chance for an emergency rescue. The aim: to help the European Space Agency (ESA) with preparations for a human mission to Mars.

The international crew is staying at the Concordia research station, located high on the Antarctic plateau. Considered to replicate various aspects of a Mars mission, the Concordia site is extremely isolated, climatic conditions are harsh, and the crew is expected to feel the effects of this high-stress environment. As the subjects of the research, ESA has asked the crew to complete regular questionnaires during their stay to see how they cope.

Aurora, the European Space Agency's ambitious long-term program of exploration, will feature robotic missions to the Moon and Mars, in preparation for eventual human missions to both. Although no concrete plans are yet in place for this human element of the programme, ESA hopes to send astronauts to Mars within the next 30 years. By conducting human experiments in Antarctica, ESA hopes to develop insight into the challenges that lie ahead. The research is ultimately geared towards the search for astronauts.

"Most of the activities at Concordia aim at characterising the adaptation of human beings to the extreme environment, with regard to body and mind," said Oliver Angerer, ESA's coordinator for the Concordia research program. "Issues that are being looked at include: how does the crew cope with the situation, how does a group identity form, what are the effects on mood, etc."

A round-trip human mission to Mars could last several years. During the long outward and return journeys, the crew will be confined together in a very small space, isolated from friends and relatives, enduring exposure to radiation and the effects of reduced gravity. In other words, they will constantly be living under extreme conditions.

Guillaume Dargaud is an engineer who participated in the first winter-over at Concordia in 2004. In his own words, he experienced "one year away from friends and family, four months of total darkness, minus 79C [minus 110F] winter temperature and ten months of total isolation." He didn't find the isolation particularly difficult to deal with, but said "it depends on the people. One needs to be solitary without being antisocial. The people who break down early are not necessarily those without anything to do, they are those who don't know how to fill their time." Asked if he thought he could survive a long-duration space mission after surviving Antarctica, his simple answer was, "Where do I sign up?"

Mars Express spots possible sites for life formation.
Credit: ESA

A collaborative effort, Concordia was constructed and is now operated jointly by the French Polar Institute and the Italian Antarctic programme. In 2002, the European Space Agency became involved in the project. Construction finished in 2004, and since 2005 Concordia has been made available to the worldwide scientific community for research. During the current winter-over, in addition to the psychological observations, the health and fitness of the crew will be monitored, and ESA's ongoing experiment Mistacoba will study how microbes spread and evolve in the station as an isolated environment. A waste-water recycling system is also being tested.

Angerer said, "We (ESA) started our Antarctic activities with the cooperation on Concordia. That is due to two reasons. One is the fact that [human] exploration only became a topic of interest for the European Space Agency a few years ago. The other reason is that Concordia offers properties that make it more interesting than many other Antarctic bases. The wintering crews are relatively small, closer to the number of possible Mars mission crews than the large American bases. And the environment, on top of the Dome C high ice plateau is really very harsh and extreme."

The studies aim to provide more information on the personality traits that are most important for crew members to possess. Previous studies have discovered various traits that seem to be consistent in successful astronauts. These include high self-assertiveness combined with high interpersonal sensitivity and expressivity; high levels of mastery, work orientation, and goal-directedness. It is also helpful if the astronauts are able to be tolerant of individual and cultural differences, and have a good sense of humour.

Results from psychological studies on Russian cosmonauts staying on the Earth-orbiting MIR spacecraft for extended periods have shown that morale boosters are important to prevent boredom and depression. Taking music and other reminders from home, and having frequent contact with family on Earth, are small but very effective strategies. On a mission to Mars, however, talking to people back on Earth will not be so easy. The enormous distances will cause time-delays in any communications.

Generations of habitats in Antarctica: Captain Robert F. Scott's Hut with the more modern McMurdo Station behind it.
Credit: Eric R. Christian/ Exploration of the Universe Division at NASA's GSFC

It's not only important to look at the characteristics of individuals; the group as a whole must also be able to work well together. One Russian cosmonaut was said to comment that shutting men together in a confined space for a long time met all the conditions required for a murder! In the future, ESA plans to be actively involved in selecting the crews that will go to the Concordia station. Group interactions on long-duration space missions are complex, and psychological training is vital in order to prevent problems and disputes. Training in specific areas such as resolving conflicts, managing stress, and co-operating as a team, takes on major importance for a crew who will have little contact with the outside world.

Being operated by both French and Italian institutes, Concordia is occupied by an international crew. ESA places high importance on the ability of astronauts to work well in a multi-cultural team, which will probably be the case on a Mars mission. Individuals of different nationalities can have very different values and habits, not to mention language differences, and must be able to live and work together without problems. As a team, the crew's ability to effectively deal with their situation is of central importance to their health and to the success of the mission.

Said Angerer, "Furthering our knowledge about the adaptation of human beings to the conditions at Concordia will enable us to improve psychological training and support measures, something that will be of great importance for exploration missions."

By Jacqueline Garget

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