Mars and Psychology of Space Travel

When we think of space travel, or the exploration of the cosmos in general, we are inundated with grandeur notions of enormous spacecraft, thriving multi-planetary civilizations, and awe-inspiring extraterrestrials. Popular culture and exciting research has thus molded our perception of space into one of unbridled and relentless optimism (which I love). We see Mars and other Earth-like planets as organic cradles of life, and as we get lost in the amazement of doing so, we trivialize a very difficult reality – our need to colonize and assimilate into a new world.

Being cooped up in an air-locked dome for months and eating freeze-dried food for every meal engenders immense psychological and social changes, ones which we haven’t come to fully appreciate. Thankfully for us, six brave research subjects have committed themselves to the very same reality; they spent eight months in isolation in a Mars-like habitat to better understand the long-term psychological impacts of a manned mission to the red planet. What did they eat? How did they live with each other? How did they retain their sanity? Was it eight months of hell? What follows is a fairly unorthodox set of human experiences, but one that fully underscores the importance of space travel’s most unappreciated dimension.

The crew of four men and two women was quarantined below the summit of the Hawaii’s Mauna Loa, the world’s largest active volcano. They left their dome in space suits, and all communications were purposefully delayed by 20 minutes – the time/signal delay between Earth and Mars. Moreover, their outfits were laced with sensors to track proximity to others and noise levels. Most importantly, however, their purpose extended beyond the geological studies to simply gauge whether or not it was possible to maintain a self-sufficient habitat on Mars. During the eight months in isolation, mission biology specialist Joshua Ehrlich managed to grow vegetables, even in the hard-rock soil of the volcano’s summit.

Obviously, we are deeply limited by our capacity to re-create such a reality for the researchers. That being said, the NASA-backed project has taken every reasonable measure to do so, and across their team of biologists, tech specialists, and psychologists, they’ve formed a representative environment to conduct a traditionally disregarded type of study.

If there’s any takeaway from this research project, it’s that we now have an empirical study on the psychological implications of space exploration. Now, keep in mind that this kind of stuff isn’t new – my issue arises in the fact that we let Sci-Fi blockbusters and spaceship launch videos take precedence over these kinds of studies. We become giddy at the prospect of leaked rocket designs, but fail to make ourselves aware of Mars simulation projects that may not actually get us to the red planet, but will fully determine the longevity of a potential civilization there.

I strongly feel that if we begin to understand human interaction in limited spaces and different environments, we can center our designs for structures and technologies that will ensure our health and well-being in an exogenous civilization. This gets into a field known as HCD (Human Centered Design) that seeks to build great resources only after fully accepting the needs, sentiments, and desires of their users. These research projects help collect the data required for the creation of such intelligent designs. Ultimately, Mars simulation projects play a monumental role in the development of living structures and other survival technologies that will come to define the length of our stay away from Earth, and we should revere the purveyors of such studies just as much as those who are building machines to help get us there.