Fake Mars mission leaves its astronauts spaced out

The Guardian, LONDON

Wed, Jan 09, 2013 - Page 7

As the cheerless skies and grim economy sap all will to return to work, take heart that even on a trip to Mars, it is hard to get out of bed in the morning.

The drudge of interplanetary travel has emerged from research on six men who joined the longest simulated space mission ever: a 17-month round trip to the red planet in a pretend spaceship on a Moscow industrial estate.

Though chosen for the job as the best of the best, as the mission wore on, the would-be spacefarers spent an increasing amount of time under their comforters and sitting around idle. The crew’s activity levels plummeted in the first three months and continued to fall for the next year.

On the return leg, the men spent nearly 700 hours longer in bed than on the outward journey and only perked up in the last 20 days before they clambered from their capsule in November 2011. Four crew members suffered from sleep or psychological issues.

“We saw some problems,” said Mathias Basner, of the University of Pennsylvania, who studies the effects of sleep-loss on behavior. “There were no major adverse events, but there could have been if the stars were aligned in a certain way.”

The US$10 million Mars500 project, run by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems, launched, metaphorically, when the hatch to the mock-up spaceship closed behind three Russians, two Europeans and a Chinese in June 2010. The men spent the next 520 days in windowless isolation. Their only contact with the outside world was over the Internet and by telephone lines that carried a delay of up to 20 minutes, to mimic the time it takes radio waves to reach Mars from Earth.

Throughout the mission, the men endured daily medical, physical and psychological examinations, to help space agencies learn how humans cope with the stress, confinement and limited company that astronauts will face on future voyages. The crew fought boredom by watching DVDs, reading books and playing Guitar Hero on a games console. Mission controllers faked a fire and a power outage to keep them alert.

The ESA selected the crew from thousands of highly qualified applicants and put them through a year of intensive training, but despite embodying “the right stuff” that underpins the astronaut corps, the men struggled with the tedium of the mission.

According to the study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, some crew members fared worse than others. One began living a 25-hour day and quickly fell out of routine with the others.

“If you live on a 25-hour day, after 12 days it’s the middle of the night for you when it’s daytime for everyone else,” Basner said.

Another crew member slept at night, but took ever longer naps during the day.

A third crew member slept so badly he suffered chronic sleep deprivation and single-handedly accounted for the majority of mistakes on a computer test used to measure concentration and alertness.

In a second study, not yet published, the team describes a fourth crew member who was developing mild depression.