No-one in human history, so far, knows what an actual manned trip to Mars entails. Although there has been much speculation, we can only understand so much about the environment of the Red Planet through the use of unmanned rovers. Several companies, both public and private, have recently made it a priority to reach Mars; and not only that—the goal is to sustain ourselves there. The future of mankind depends on us leaving Earth and discovering new habitats to continue life. With resources dwindling, the climate being affected by our very presence, and the population reaching a point where it can no longer comfortably occupy our planet, the journey to Mars is piqued by curiosity and fashioned by necessity.
Inherently, the trip will involve crew isolation, the likes of which we have never seen, and constraints on the will of those involved. The psychological impacts of solitude or confinement are well understood, and they are not pleasant. Although the crew will have one another, the team itself will be an isolated body. What happens if we apply what we know about how humans react psychologically to a far-reaching endeavor such as this? What happens to the human psyche when it realizes the fate of a mission of this nature? These conditions are not experienced solely on the journey; once there, life must be sustained in the same conditions. The following paper speculates, based on previous experiments and research involving isolation, what may happen to those brave enough to make the journey.
In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, a simple satellite. It was the first man-made object in space. Prompted by this act, President John F. Kennedy challenged the United States to reach the moon by the end of the 1960s, ushering in the space age. Since then, the U.S. space program has greatly expanded due in large part to three things: public interest, the reality that we need to eventually leave our home planet, and the exponential growth of private companies putting their own dollars, combined with government funds, into the challenge.
Privately funded companies such as SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, Amazon (referred to as Blue Origin in the private space race), founded by Jeff Bezos, and Virgin Galactic, founded by Richard Branson, are at the forefront of trying to succeed in this endeavor. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), funded by the U.S. Government, has put several rovers on Mars (Sojourner in 1997, Spirit/Opportunity in 2004, and Curiosity in 2012), and they continue to collect data and relay the information back to Earth. Many have reaped the benefits of these data and continue to expound upon what is known about the Red Planet’s environment. The next Mars rover, aptly named Mars 2020, will be launched in, you guessed it, 2020.
Since the creation of the science fiction genre, there has been much speculation, most of it fantasy up until now, about what life forms and other mysteries occupy the heavens. It has been a fantastical fixation of humanity that has entertained minds for centuries. Although we are just beginning to understand the inherent challenges that come with this journey into space, the impact on the delicate human psyche being one of them, we have long understood the ill-effects of what it means to be isolated from others. Humans are social creatures who crave stimulation, and as such, when deprived of this, we can be driven to dangerous points.
Consider the boredom one may experience in a day-to-day routine, then amplify that boredom and add to it the feeling of both physical and psychological remoteness. Koerth-Baker (2013) points out that extreme boredom is the same, psychologically speaking, as having too much to do. As many are familiar with this feeling, it is easy to imagine how overwhelming, or underwhelming, that can be. The standard duration of a journey to Mars is upwards of five months when humans are factored in, although new technologies are being explored as alternatives. Currently the best scientists have come up with is a laser-propulsion system that runs on photons directed from a beam on Earth. Even at its quickest, this still only brings the duration down to three months, speculatively (Santos, 2016).
Boredom is a serious challenge that can be likened to solitary confinement (Koerth-Baker, 2013). Both are associated with attempts at risky decisions and both are known to produce strange behavior. It is also known that one of the only defenses against becoming one’s own worst enemy in either scenario is to stay busy and come up with mundane tasks. And in space, unlike in solitary confinement, there is no shortage of tasks; however, that does not preclude someone on the journey from becoming bored with the tasks themselves, and this could lead to risky decisions being made, threatening the integrity of the mission at hand and halting progress.
Previous research has identified several additional major concerns that participants in the first Mars mission should be aware of—such as social isolation, confinement, loss of privacy, and a lack of mental health services (Chambers, 2013). The effects of social isolation, not just for people here on Earth but for astronauts too, are well understood, and include emotional instability, depression, and sleeplessness as the main ones. Skeptics have drawn attention to these issues, while others have argued that a positive attitude is the remedy. It seems highly unlikely, however, that a team with the right attitude can withstand these effects for long once the Earth has been left behind and the realization of never returning becomes very real. SpaceX’s own founder, Elon Musk, has stated he would never be among the first to go to Mars because they must be willing to die (Hull, 2016)…
This has been an excerpt from the Nov-Dec 2017 issue of the Age of Robots magazine.