For many, October marks the eighth month of social distancing measures to reduce the spread of Covid-19. The depth and duration of our isolation is something most of us have never had to endure. Most of us Earthlings, at any rate.
Isolation isn’t a new normal for space explorers. It’s part of the job. For example, on the International Space Station (ISS), the current record for the longest mission is 437 days, held by cosmonaut Valery Polyakov. The longest American mission was a 340-day trip by Scott Kelly. And NASA is anticipating even longer journeys as they plan for a 3-year mission to Mars in the 2030s.
The pandemic revealed the many ways isolation can jeopardize our mental health. The same challenges — chronic stress, depression, insomnia, interpersonal conflict, and performance deterioration — are felt during long space missions, too. It can be challenging to maintain mental health on Earth. It’s even more difficult to do so millions of miles from Earth.
On October 21, retired astronauts David Hilmers, Nicole Stott and Cady Coleman shared their personal stories of isolation and loneliness during a USA Today Storyteller event called “Farthest You’ll Ever Be From Home.” These powerful stories from space explorers provided insight and hope for all of us coping with a new normal. Joined by scientists from the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH), listeners heard advice for today and learned what it will take to protect explorers as NASA heads back to the Moon with the Artemis mission, and onward to Mars.
So, what will it take to get humans to Mars, safe and sane?
There’s a myriad of physical dangers, and alongside those, behavioral health challenges are expected. Without validated countermeasures that work in spaceflight, such issues could derail a deep space exploration.
Imagine being in the boots of the first Martian explorer. You’ve just made history as one of the first humans to make the long journey to Mars. You look to the horizon and see Earth above – a tiny dot. Although you’ve rigorously trained for every foreseeable scenario, you have never been away from everything and everyone you hold dear for this long before. Earth and all its comforts are far away, along with the comforts that inhabit it – our friends and family, the sound of rain or the crashing of waves on the beach, the smell of freshly cut grass, or the feeling of the breeze blowing your hair.
This is a homesickness that not even “phoning home” can fix. It takes six to nine months to get to Mars, and as your distance from Earth grows, so does the time it takes to relay messages home. “Normal” conversation won’t work; even if they traveled at the speed of light, those messages would take 3 to 22 minutes each way. Worse still, communications blackouts are guaranteed. Any changes to crew mental health throughout the long mission can put the entire mission at risk.
The challenge of maintaining mental health throughout a 30-plus month Mars mission will require innovation and translational approaches. The Translational Research Institute for Space Health works with the NASA Human Research Program to find and fund research for health and performance protection for the mission to Mars. TRISH is a Baylor College of Medicine-led consortium with the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
NASA has experience with supporting crew through extended stays onboard the ISS, but new solutions are required for Mars explorers. They will undoubtedly face chronic stress, depression, insomnia, interpersonal conflict, and performance deterioration. Except for exercise, the current psychological supports currently available to astronauts flying on the International Space Station, may not be available on Mars’ exploration missions.
Recently, the Translational Research Institute for Space Health selected three innovative biotech companies using VR, conversation-bots, and probiotic therapeutics to combat mental health risks. More innovation will be necessary to help space explorers survive and thrive—and those advances for space will lead to better mental health care for us all.
Photo: Pr3t3nd3r, Getty Images