Aurion Mission

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Isolation biggest challenge in Mars trip simulation

Stephanie Smail reported this story on Tuesday, September 13, 2011 12:50:00
ELEANOR HALL: Finally today to the latest step by humans to reach the planet Mars.

Six participants in a simulation project are finding out exactly how hard it may be even to make the psychological leap.

They're aiming to stay in total isolation for 520 days - the time scientists think it would take to get to Mars and back, and they've already been in the simulator since June last year .

But the isolation and monotony is taking its toll, as Stephanie Smail reports.

STEPHANIE SMAIL: Diego Urbina has been isolated from the outside world for 15 months, and he misses it.

DIEGO URBINA: Simple things such as the blue sky, such as I don't know, going dancing in the evening. I love that, and here I am not able to do it.

STEPHANIE SMAIL: He's one of the six men from Russia, Italy, China and France who volunteered to simulate the year and a half long trip to Mars and back.

Based at a special facility at the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow, the men are living in a completely artificial environment, with no daylight and no fresh air.

Diego Urbina has been making video diaries during the project.

DIEGO URBINA: My family, I miss them a lot, and my friends. Well, in general I miss a lot the randomness of the world.

STEPHANIE SMAIL: And although there's only two months to go, the men are starting to struggle mentally.

Jonathan Clark from the Mars Society of Australia says the isolation the men are experiencing is similar to teams who travel to the Antarctic.

He says they experience a so-called "third quarter syndrome" when they're on the home stretch but there's still a way to go.

JOANTHAN CLARK: After the half way point and before the last quarter when people will be getting ready to come home, there is a very low point in morale.

Of course, going to a Mars mission there's also an additional factor as well. In the Antarctic with winter over, things start to improve. Of course, going to Mars the high point is the landing, which is half way through. And then after you've had all the excitement of the landing and all the attention then comes the hard slog of the eight month trip back to earth.

STEPHANIE SMAIL: The men have an internet connection and have been staying in touch with friends and relatives. Diego Urbina even has a Twitter account. But an artificial delay means direct conversations haven't been possible for months.

The Mars Society's Jonathan Clark.

JOANTHAN CLARK: There are no windows and of course this is something that's different to an actual space mission, where you would have a spacecraft window. And of course as you get closer to earth you'll see the earth growing from, you know, a pale blue dot to an actual planet. I'm sure that would have a real influence on morale as well, and they'd be getting sunlight through the windows.

STEPHANIE SMAIL: Project managers say the men have now set a record for the longest time away from the natural world in history and the last two months of the project will provide invaluable insights into the psychological and health impacts of the experiment.

Project manager Jennifer Ngo-Anh says the men have found intriguing ways to keep their spirits up.

JENNIFER NGO-ANH: So what they have been doing is for Halloween, for example, they dressed themselves up with scientific equipment. For Christmas they came up with their own self-made nativity scene, and they also celebrated the Chinese New Year.

STEPHANIE SMAIL: Jonathan Clark says the experiment is an invaluable contribution.

JOANTHAN CLARK: We do these experiments precisely so we can find out how to manage it. And future attempts will be more successful than present ones, and when we're ready to go to Mars then, you know, people will be even better at that.

ELEANOR HALL: I just couldn't do it. That's Jonathan Clark from the Mars Society of Australia ending Stephanie Smail's report.