X: PSYCHOLOGICAL CHALLENGES OF SPACE EXPLORATION

It takes about three days to travel to Earth’s moon from Earth. As humanity looks to deeper space exploration, the question arises: how would humans hold up under longer trips? Since Mars is likely our next stop, global space agencies have turned their attention to the potential effects of the 7-month trip to Mars. In 2011, the MARS 500 experiment simulated what it would be like to travel to Mars and back (Basner). Roscosmos (the Russian Space Agency), in conjunction with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA), put six healthy male crew members in a 550-meter cubed chamber for 520 days. They were allowed to engage in leisure activities, sleep, and exercise at will. Over the course of the experiment, conflicts occurred five times more often with mission control than among crew members. For more than 93% of mission weeks, at least one crew member began to experience symptoms of moderate depression. One crew member developed insomnia and began to experience deficits in alertness. During the 17 months, only two crew members showed neither behavioral disturbances nor reported psychological distress.

In the MARS 500 simulation, we can see the challenges of just traveling through space, let alone living in a small habitat on another planet. What we know from studies on solitary confinement is that it shortens lives even after it is no longer being experienced. Prisoners who spent 22-24 hours a day confined, sometimes for days, suffered irreparable damage to their brains and personalities (Herring). Sections of the brain that are responsible for memory have been shown to physically shrink after long periods without human interaction. A yet-unnamed psychological syndrome has been recognized to cause progressive problems such as the inability to tolerate ordinary things (like the sound of plumbing); hallucinations and illusions; difficulties thinking, concentrating, and remembering; persistent, obsessive, and intrusive thoughts; problems with impulse control; severe panic attacks, disorientation, and agitation.

From this, we know that social connection is vital in space exploration. The characters in X show symptoms similar to prisoners who experience solitary confinement. During the lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic, those who participated got a taste of what it’s like to be isolated in a comfortable environment. The strength needed to survive space exploration, even in our own solar system, would arguably be herculean.

Source(s):
Herring, Tiana. “The research is clear: Solitary confinement causes long-lasting harm.” Prison Policy Initiative, 8 December 2020, https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2020/12/08/solitary_symposium