updated 9/7/2010 2:10:29 PM ET 2010-09-07T18:10:29

When it comes to flying in space, the makeup of an astronaut crew can be just as important as the mission itself, and the same goes for a team of six volunteers going through the motions of a 520-day trek to Mars without ever leaving Earth.

The mock-Mars flight volunteers have already spent three months isolated inside a Russian simulator that mimics every phase of a trip to the Red Planet, but have a long ways to go before reaching even the midpoint of their Mars500 mission.

Researchers for the Mars500 project, which began June 3, are keeping a close watch on how the six men are physically and psychologically coping. Three Russians, two Europeans and one Chinese participant are sealed inside the Mars spaceship simulator at Russia's Institute for Biomedical Problems in Moscow.

In addition to examining the psychological effects of long-duration spaceflight, researchers are hoping that the experiment will shed some light on significant factors to consider in crew selection for lengthy future space missions.

When the voyage alone could last several years, crew composition becomes an integral part of the mission's success, researchers said.

"We are searching for psychological predictors that may say something about the interpersonal compatibility of the crew so that in the future, we may be able to decide about some criteria to use for crew composition," Gro Sandal, a principal investigator for the 520-day Mars500 simulation and a professor of psychology at the University of Bergen in Norway, told

Future explorers of Mars or an asteroid need to be able to withstand the extended periods of boredom and monotony that would accompany long spaceflight, but also need to be able to tolerate the pressure and stress of the mission itself. Equally important is to consider social personality traits, since the crew would be living and working in close quarters for extensive amounts of time.

"It's important to select people for their ability to handle the tasks that are needed to be an astronaut, but also their ability to interact with others in a group," said Nick Kanas, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. "You need to be able to get along with people, but at the same time, be comfortable working in isolation if needed. There has to be some flexibility in your personality."

How to get along in deep space
Additionally, as space agencies from different countries are increasingly working together, crews have also become more heterogeneous and multinational. As a result, cultural differences between crew members could also complicate group cohesion. The heterogeneous makeup of the Mars500 crew, and the partnership of the space agencies involved, could provide some useful analogs in this area of research.

"Interpersonal tension will occur in any confined setting in which you have to stay for a long time that's a normal reaction," Sandal said. "We do think that interpersonal tension and misunderstanding increases with crew heterogeneity because people from different cultures may have values that may be different or even incompatible."

Kanas believes that these cultural tensions can be counteracted through education and open dialogue among an astronaut crew, and between the astronauts and mission controllers on the ground.

"Training and team-building will be very important," Kanas said. "Group feelings need to be monitored, and people need to talk openly about their feelings so that they can stop stresses from festering and becoming problems."

Yet, the true effect of cultural differences can often be difficult to measure, said Sandal, as the influence of culture on an individual's personality is not always clearly defined.

"There are a number of differences that might be related to culture which are potential sources of tension during isolation," she said. "But, at the same time, it may be difficult to isolate the effect of culture in small groups from individual differences. Even if we believe something may be an expression of culture, it's not always easy to make such conclusions."

No quitters in space
Similarly, while experiments like Mars500 try to accurately mimic aspects of real spaceflight, the results can sometimes have limited applications, since participants cannot be forcibly confined if they decide to quit.

"In contrast to real flights, people may feel that they have more psychological control, since we cannot keep them in the chambers if they want to get out," Sandal explained. "But at the same time, we also know that crew members have invested a lot of pride, interest and effort into these endeavors. So, I think that it's not an easy choice for them to quit an experiment."

Still, the unprecedented Mars500 mission could provide researchers with valuable data on the psychological factors that may potentially affect astronauts who one day explore Mars and beyond. The elaborate experiment could also direct attention to the importance of adequate psychological preparation prior to and following such missions.

"Psychological support and follow-up needs to be done for a long time after these missions," Sandal said. "It's extremely important for re-adaptation to normal life, and it illustrates that the responsibility of these agencies does not simply stop after the mission ends."

This will be especially true following the inaugural long-duration spaceflight, which could, in fact, be a mission to Mars.

"It's important to have support on how to handle re-entry, just as it's important to have support during the mission," Kanas said. "The first mission of anything is going to be tough. Just like the first lunar missions, if you're on the first Mars or asteroid mission, coming back, your life is going to be completely turned around."

This report is the second in a two-part series on long-duration spaceflight that examines some of the major issues that will be studied throughout the Mars500 simulation. Part One discussed the psychological effects of long-duration spaceflight.

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Explainer: Out-of-this-world destinations

  • NASA

    We are headed to Mars ... eventually. But first we need the rocket technology and human spaceflight savvy to get us there safely and efficiently. And the best way to do that is to visit places such as asteroids, our moon, a Martian moon and even no man's lands in space called "Lagrange points," NASA administrator Charles Bolden explained during the unveiling of the agency's revised vision for space exploration.

    The vision shifts focus away from a return to the moon as part of a steppingstone to Mars in favor of what experts call a "flexible path" to space exploration, pushing humans ever deeper into the cosmos.

    Click the "Next" label to check out six other potential destinations astronauts may visit in the years and decades to come en route to Mars.

    — John Roach, contributor

  • Lessons to learn on the space station


    The cooperation required to build and maintain the International Space Station will be a key to propelling humans on to Mars, according to Louis Friedman, co-founder of The Planetary Society. The society is a space advocacy organization that supports the flexible path to space exploration. In fact, the space station itself could be a training ground for Mars-bound astronauts.

    Astronauts can spend ever longer blocks of time on the station to gain experience in long-duration flights, for example. They could also practice extravehicular activities akin to those expected on a Mars mission, Friedman noted.

  • Lunar orbit, a test of new technology


    Lunar orbit, too, is a familiar destination for human spaceflight, but a return to the familiar with new technology would allow astronauts to test the engineering of systems designed to go deeper into space, according to Friedman.

    A return to the moon is still in the cards on the flexible path, but going to lunar orbit first defers the cost of developing the landing and surface systems needed to get in and out of the lunar gravity well, according to experts.

    The famous "Earthrise" image shown here was made in 1968 during Apollo 8, the first human voyage to orbit the moon.

  • Stable no man's lands in space

    NASA / WMAP Science Team

    There are places in space where the gravitational pulls of Earth and the moon, or Earth and the sun, have a balancing effect on a third body in orbit. Those five locations, known as Lagrange points, could offer relatively stable parking spots for astronomical facilities such as space telescopes or satellites. Human spaceflights to these points would allow astronauts to service these instruments.

    In addition, space experts believe a trip to a Lagrange point could serve as a training mission for astronauts headed to points deeper in space, such as an asteroid. Nevertheless, reaching a Lagrange point would be more of a technical achievement than a scientific achievement, according to Friedman. "It is an empty spot in space," he said.

  • Visit an asteroid near you?

    Image: Paraffin candles
    Dan Durda  /  FIAAA

    The first stop astronauts may make in interplanetary space is one of the asteroids that cross near Earth's orbit. Scientists have a keen interest in the space rocks because of the threat that one of them could strike Earth with devastating consequences. An asteroid mission would allow scientists to better understand what makes the rocks tick, and thus how to best divert one that threatens to smack our planet.

    Humans have also never been to an asteroid, which would make such a visit an exciting first, noted Friedman. "Imagine how interesting it will be to see an astronaut step out of a spacecraft and down onto an asteroid and perform scientific experiments," he said. What's more, since asteroids have almost no gravity, an asteroid encounter would be like docking with the space station, which doesn't require a heavy-lift rocket for the return. That makes an asteroid a potentially less expensive destination than the surface of the moon.

  • Back to the moon?

    NASA via Getty Images

    The moon-Mars path of human space exploration originally envisioned the moon as a training ground for a mission to the Red Planet. While the flexible-path strategy broadens the training field, the moon remains a candidate destination, according to NASA.

    Several other nations also have the moon's surface in their sights, including Japan, India and China. Some experts fear the dedicated lunar programs of these nations will eventually leave the United States in the dust as it focuses on an ambiguous flexible path.

    Friedman, of The Planetary Society, said NASA should support the lunar programs of Japan, India and China as part of team building for an international Mars mission, but sees no reason for NASA to focus on the moon. "We've done that already and that was Apollo," he said.

  • Martian moon a final pit stop?

    NASA / JPL-Caltech / UA

    Before astronauts go all the way to Mars, there's reason to make a final stop at one of its moons, Phobos or Deimos. The two moons are less than 20 miles across at their widest, which means landing on them would be less expensive than the Red Planet itself.

    Friedman used to consider a mission to a Martian moon nonsensical - akin to going to the base camp of Mount Everest instead of going to the top of the mountain. "I've now turned myself around on that, because you do go to the base camp and you do actually conduct training activities there before you attempt the summit," he said.

    "By all means go there," he added. "Test out your rendezvous and docking at Mars, conduct your three-year, round-trip mission, maybe tele-operate some rovers of the surface (of Mars). That will all be interesting and then the next mission will finally go down to the surface."


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