Just when going to Mars finally seems like it would be great, past the bumps and on the straightaway, we’re once again reminded this trip is not for the faint of heart. In fact, it’s barely doable, even for the bravest and brightest humans alive. The first wave of people going to the Red Planet will be tasked with nothing short of hero’s work — just the training you must survive before strapping on that spacesuit and getting in a shuttle is grueling enough to make most of us give up right from the get-go.
In episode five, “Darkest Days,” those currently living on Mars in 2037 are getting a serious case of cabin fever. A dust storm, a monstrous looking tornado of finely grated sand has taken hold of their sector of the planet, and no one can leave the lava tube. It’s “storm season,” which have been recorded to last for months on end, are blinding, and blocking their access to solar power.
The crew needs to preserve as much power as possible for there’s truly no telling when this storm will end. The worst effect is that this keeps most of the crew from performing their assigned jobs. These scientists are locked inside with no sunlight, nothing to do, and it’s getting very cold. It’s an extreme version of MTV’s “The Real World” — and in episode five, people stop being polite and start getting real.
Needless to say, the lava tubes no longer look like fun space camp: It’s Death Planet hell. And what’s most lethal to everyone, aside from the raging weather outside, is the state of everyone’s mental health on the inside.
Leonard David, who authored the companion book of the National Geographic series, “Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet,” told us the most important part of successfully colonizing the fourth rock from the sun is figuring out a way to stay psychologically sane. In David’s book he discusses being “homesick too long. As a Martian settlement develops independent from the home planet, social isolation evolves into a deep sense of hopeless disconnectedness. There is never a chance to step outside for fresh air.”
There are over a dozen research facilities that have been built for this exact type of training purposes. These “desertnauts” simulate what it would be like to live in total isolation, with only your fellow crew members sharing that perilous terrain. Most recently, NASA funded a trial that put a mock crew in Hawaii’s Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) program for an entire year: Six team members lived 8,200 feet above sea level in a two-story, solar powered dome inside Mauna Loa, the state’s largest volcano, while scientists studied crew composition and cohesion.
“Basically, we’re looking into how to keep them alive and sane,” Kim Binstead, a HI-SEAS principle project investigator says. “There’s no going out for a beer. There no leaving each other alone for six months. You can’t do avoidance … that’s not an option.”
The longest running mock trial took place in Moscow, Russia between 2007 and 2011. Known as Mars500, the 520 day experiment imitated the actual time it would take to get there and set up shop. The crew got along well enough throughout, but suffered greatly from missing their friends and family. Potential Mars crew members must sacrifice years of their life just practicing, before actually risking their lives to be in total isolation.
Then there’s the effect of the initial journey itself. Kevin Fong, associate director of the Centre for Altitude, Space, and Extreme Environment Medicine and University College London, says the journey to Mars itself will deplete much of the astronauts original mental and physical strength right from the get-go.
“Deprived of gravitational load, bones fall prey to a kind spaceflight-induced osteoporosis. And because 99 percent of our body’s calcium is stored in the skeleton, as it wastes away, that calcium finds its way into the bloodstream, causing yet more problems from constipation to renal stones to psychotic depression.”
Many of these “desertnaut” training sessions have produced sobering results. The smartest and toughest astrophysicists, who are all fully aware of the possible effects, can’t help but mentally deteriorate as time goes by. And even if the each crewperson can keep it together, internal conflict with each other can knock everything off balance.
Robert Zubrin, President of the Mars Society, remains hopeful that humans can figure this out.
“The people who say that on a long-term Mars mission, the human psyche will be the weak link in the chain, are wrong. Our crews have proven very adaptable, and I see no reason why NASA crews won’t be as well. The spirits of those who want to do this are strong. Provided we choose the right team for a piloted Mars mission, the human crew will be the strongest link in the chain.”
However, it’s implausible to believe zero conflict will happen, even with the most jovial of people. Each person must be able to work with each other and maintain a high level of performance even under dire stress. And what happens if just one astronaut loses their mind — well, the final few moments of episode 5 shows us that exactly. It’s horrifying.
The final episode of “Mars” airs Monday, Dec. 19, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel.