Battling the boredom and monotony of a mission to Mars
Could anything in the universe be more exciting than traveling through space and exploring new worlds? Apparently… yes. Despite the mind-blowing, historic nature of being some of the first humans to set foot on another planet, mission planners are very concerned about pioneering astronauts getting bored. Obviously, they’d have their hands full at times, and have to keep a cool head in various intense moments, but between the long voyage to a place like Mars, plus the likely need for an extended stay on the Red Planet, there will be plenty of time to get horribly, dangerously bored.
The problem with boredom is that it can dull a person’s thinking. Too much monotony can put a damper on anything, even alert signals from freak anomalies like engine failure in one’s spaceship. Bored astronauts are likely to start eating less, which after a two-and-a-half years on Mars, is likely to leave them dangerously malnourished. Living in enclosed, controlled spaces also removes many markers of time and progress that we’re used to, which disrupts sleep cycles, further corroding people’s coping mechanisms.
Testing the tedium
Some of these issues have come up with astronauts living on the International Space Station (ISS), although it’s far from perfect analogue for what astronauts going to another planet will deal with. While crews of the ISS have to eat food from packets, have odd sleep cycles and more, they also have a few ‘luxuries’ to help them out. Being in the Earth’s orbit means they can watch the planet, and have a reference point for their connection to humanity. They’re kept busy with massive numbers of experiments, but they also have time to keep in nearly live contact with Earth, which obviously provides some variety and stimulation.
To try and discover what living on Mars will be like, NASA has been running the Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS). Volunteers have been living in a sealed dome for six months to a year to see how a group of six people may or may not function when cut off from things we take for granted on Earth. Their diets are limited, water rationed, and if they want to go out of the dome, volunteers are required to put on heavy space suits for their walks. Even people who thought they weren’t prone to boredom and actively tried to keep a number of personal projects going eventually started complaining about seeing the same red rocks out their window every day. Contact with the outside world had a 20 minute delay for all transmissions, limiting how much people could talk or even read websites from the rest of Earth. A participant eventually shaved his beard, prompting another to become so discombobulated by the sudden change that she thought he was an intruder when she saw him.
Mixing things up on Mars
This doesn’t mean that space is doomed to painful monotony though. While en route to Mars, there are proposals to include features in the astronauts’ spacecraft to help them feel connected to home. Since they’ll be too far away to see Earth from a window, they may have a special telescope to look back at home, or possibly some kind of interior projection system to simulate an Earth environment in the ship. Once on Mars, there should be enough gravity to allow for cooking that would be impractical on the ISS. Rather than rely strictly on packaged food that will always taste the same, spices and recipes that allow for experimentation will hopefully keep meal time interesting while also giving astronauts a different avenue to interact with each other. In the HI-SEAS tests, recipes were suggested by people outside the dome, providing new challenges and fresh perspectives for the occupants to try out. Even if the food wasn’t someone’s favorite, it was at least something new for people’s brains to dive into.
Source: Even Astronauts Get The Blues: Or Why Boredom Drives Us Nuts by Shankar Vedantam & NPR Staff, Hidden Brain