how not to lose your sanity on an alien planet

September 18, 2013 — 3 Comments

valles marineris

Despite the flimsy plans and questionable premise of the Mars One project, there are now tens of thousands of people who signed up to possibly die on another planet and only a few of them will be chosen for the reality show style mission. Which is still many years away from being ready in any way, shape or form. But as would-be colonists are preparing to leave Earth behind for an alien tundra, one of the big things going overlooked is their mental health, according to a post featured in The Guardian. No, no one’s implying that the applicants are not in their right mind to sign up for a once in a lifetime trip, literally, but that their psyche is in serious danger because a number of studies on human behavior in isolation, under scruitiny, and in confined spaces for a long period of time point to a very high probability of boredom, depression, and anxiety. And the last thing you want a space colonist to be is bored, depressed, and agitated. That’s when really, really bad things can happen and with no one to intervene, they can spiral out of control while a shocked audience powerlessly watches from up to 140 million miles away. This would make for an unforgettable night of TV, but it’s certainly wouldn’t make for a good mission to Mars.

As I recently argued, this is why we need spacious, almost luxury spacecraft if we want to really explore the solar system and beyond. We want our astronauts to be stimulated and have every possible comfort of home. The excitement of a mission to another planet would be powerful, but it’s only going to last so long until the monotony of a long trip takes over and all the experiments and chores turn into tedious tasks on a checklist. We need interplanetary internet with Netflix as well as games, the ability to leave messages to friends and loved ones on Earth at any time, the schedule should a lot for weekends, and the habitats should allow for both communal areas, and big private spaces to counter the feeling of being confined. Certainly this sounds like a wish list of a spoiled teenager rather than necessities for astronauts, but astronauts are humans too and we need to take care of their mental health while they’re doing things no human has ever done, and exploring places no human has ever been. Considering that they’re trying to build a city in an icy, poisonous, alien desert, is trying to give them a way to play Halo or surf the web really an unjustifiable luxury, especially if it will keep them from possibly developing a mental illness?

[ illustration by Tiago da Silva ]

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  • greencheapsk8

    Give them an Ipad (other tablets are available! ) for scientific notations, and tracking or other important space mission stuff.
    Then as an added bonus, load that sucker with games.
    Playing angry birds and minecraft and candy crush or any of the other games.

    Would be a bit mind bending to play games based on Mars, on Mars.

  • TheBrett

    Good post. I’d add that it should apply to any planet- and moon-side colonies as well, where it might be easier since you could use local building materials. It would be especially good if children are involved, since you probably wouldn’t be able to constantly refit them for space suits. They’d be spending their childhoods in-doors, and without spacious areas, I’d be worried they would turn into agoraphobes in adulthood.

    We already see some of this with ships and submarines. Submarines have limited space, so they try to make up for that with some other amenities (particularly food) – and even then, they only go on relatively limited time missions. Spacious ships and habitats would be a must for long-term trips.

    We need interplanetary internet with Netflix as well as games, the ability to leave messages to friends and loved ones on Earth at any time, the schedule should a lot for weekends, and the habitats should allow for both communal areas, and big private spaces to counter the feeling of being confined.

    Agreed. Considering the light-speed lag with stuff beyond the Earth-Moon System, I think you’d see a lot of web forums and discussion set-ups where the delay wouldn’t be an issue. Like this blog!

  • Chris Warburton

    I agree that artificial stimuli like games and TV should be available, simply because they’re incredibly cheap: the required computers will be on-board already for things like data logging and messaging (I’m not suggesting the navigation computer be used!) and everything else is EM waves which don’t require rockets (although launching a few relay stations to Lagrange points would probably be a good idea).

    Another good stimulus would be tending plants. According to http://modernfarmer.com/2013/09/starship-salad-bar/ the presence of plants on board the ISS helped the crew’s state of mind. A colony will need a sustainable source of food, and tending crops can provide a sense of purpose and normality.