Scientists already trying to stop Mars astronauts from killing each other

Contributed by
May 30, 2013

We might be more than a decade from a Mars mission, but NASA's already weighing psychological risks.

The space agency hopes to send a group of astronauts to visit the Red Planet sometime in the 2030s, and while the most high-profile part of the preparation for that mission is making sure we have the right spacecraft to safely carry astronauts to and from Mars, scientists are also worrying about the mental health of the space explorers who would attempt such a mission.

Unlike a trip to and from the moon, which only took Apollo astronauts a few days, a voyage to and from Mars could last up to three years. That's three years spent mostly in a capsule that would make the smallest of studio apartments seem roomy, with no opportunity at all to escape from your fellow astronauts and their annoying habits. Plus, after a while, you wouldn't even be able to see Earth anymore, and once you arrived at Mars, you'd have to contend with a 20-minute communications delay with Earth, which means that even in the most dire of emergencies, you'd have to wait by the phone for a while to see if NASA heard your cries for help.

Some of us get frustrated and stressed out just reading that, but think of living it. It's not hard to imagine that even the sturdiest of astronauts attempting such a journey could, you know ... just freak right the hell out one day and push a colleague out of an airlock. That's why NASA is working to develop technology to prevent such psychological traumas before they happen. 

The agency recently awarded a $1.3 million contract to a group of Michigan State University psychologists who are working to develop a kind of sensor "badge" that all astronauts on the Mars mission would wear. In theory, the sensor would monitor various indicators of psychological health, including heart rate and blood pressure, while also keeping track of how social interactions with other astronauts play out, in an effort to see signs of a confrontration before it actually happens.

"You can never ensure that nothing bad will happen," project leader Steve Kozlowski, PhD, said. "But a coherent means of assessing interactions and stress ... is one way to protect against any negative outcomes."

 In theory, the badge would monitor things like length of conversation, tone of voice and vital signs all at once, thereby assessing whether an astronaut is being overly aggressive or confrontational. From there, the badge would provide some kind of feedback, like suggesting the astronauts "make up" or warn an aggressive person to tone it down.

"I don't want this to be a Big Brother observation system," Kozlowski said. "This is more about giving team members the opportunity to self-regulate their own behavior."

There haven't been many reported severe psychological incidents with astronauts over the years, but that's in part because astronauts are often afraid to admit that they can't handle the unique pressure of the job. That unwillingness to admit you're struggling is a particular concern when NASA is trying to send astronauts out into the darkness of space for three years. 

"The expectation that astronauts ‘have the right stuff' is a big barrier," said Douglas Vakoch, PhD, a clincial psychologist and senior SETI Institute scientist. "They don't want to admit faults, nor do they want to lose flight status."

To combat this element of the psychological strain of a Mars mission, NASA is also working with Harvard scientists to develop computerized "therapists" that astronauts could consult during the Mars journey. The agency is also already conducting simulations of long-term missions, and working with psychologists to determine how to assemble the most psychologically compatible group of astronauts for the Mars mission.

So, while the odds of going crazy on the way to the Red Planet are higher than anything NASA has faced before, the agency's already hard at work to address the sanity factor. What do you think? Can humans really handle this trip?

(Via The Verge)


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