What if…and “Simulating a Mission to Mars”

As discussed here, Russia is hosting “Mars 500,” a 500-day-long simulation of an expedition to Mars using European, Russian, and Chinese volunteer “Marsonauts.” Be sure to check out the interactive timeline here.

A trip to Mars would be the longest human spaceflight ever attempted. Although space has increased from that of the Gemini program (akin to the seats in a old Volkswagon bug), just about any spaceship will be confining, leading to all sorts of psychological stresses. Volunteers have been inside a sealed set of chambers since June 2010. Messages sent between control and the “ship” are delayed as they would be in real life. “The windowless chambers are locked and soundproofed, with air and water piped in. The six volunteers inside eat only what they brought and what they can grow. They jettison their garbage via an airlock, along with flash drives and memory cards containing the results of myriad experiments. These appear daily for technicians to collect and sort. Nothing goes back in.” Cameras inside the ship record the participants.

Control has kept their contact minimal, to create a sense of self-sufficiency. When control wants the volunteers to do something, they request an action, instead of ordering it (a handy trick that was the product of experience with astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS)). Staff psychologists have helped coach family members with addressing the volunteers to keep up morale (the trick is to give the volunteers a stream of very small communications).

Naturally, the simulation has intentionally incorporated problems, such as simulating a lack of audio transmission, forcing the volunteers to hold signs up to the camera. Other problems have not been planned. When a bomb exploded in Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport in January, news was withheld from the Russian volunteers until control was certain none of their friends or loved ones were hurt or killed. However, the European volunteers were informed immediately, making the Russian volunteers angry towards control. And never underestimate the potential stress a clogged shower can create.

If you would like additional reading on this topic, check out Packing for Mars by Mary Roach. She covers a lot of the historical examples of stress induced by elements of space travel. She also looks at how many experts are working to reduce the stressors of a journey to Mars. Additionally, check out the movie Moon for examples of communications breakdowns, stress, and isolation.

These sorts of experiments are very useful for writers who do not wish to use faster than light (FTL) drives on their fictional spaceships. The confined spaces; the potential for misunderstandings, arguments, or even violence between astronauts; and the sense of isolation from Earth should impact your characters. How is that stress multiplied when the astronauts really can’t go anywhere to “be alone” from their fellow astronauts? Additionally, what if your characters should develop romantic attractions to one another? What if a third has a purely sexual attraction? There is a shotgun in the Soyuz capsule portion of the ISS–if the Soyuz is used as an escape pod, the shotgun could be used for various survival tasks. What if an astronaut gets hurt or killed? How would the violence affect the crew, especially considering each will have to work harder to make up for the missing person’s labor? What would you tell control?

What do you think of the stresses of long-term space travel? How would your characters react?