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Scientists learn space lessons in Antarctica

Many of the issues that astronauts would face on the moon or Mars are being studied in Antarctica — including how to manage diet, medical care, psychological problems and sex.
Snow drifts against a row of semicircular structures known as "Jamesways" at a U.S. Antarctic base. Such huts could serve as models for a prototype lunar habitat.
Snow drifts against a row of semicircular structures known as "Jamesways" at a U.S. Antarctic base. Such huts could serve as models for a prototype lunar habitat.NSF
/ Source: Reuters

In the depths of the Antarctic winter, expeditioners at Australia’s research bases might as well be on the moon. Or on their way to Mars.

“When you are in Antarctica you know you can’t get out — there’s no rescue during winter. And that changes one’s mentality,” said Des Lugg, head of polar medicine at the Australian Antarctic Division from 1968 to 2001 and now a consultant to NASA.

“You can get back faster from the international space station than you can from the Antarctic in the depths of winter,” he said.

It’s that very isolation that makes Australia’s Antarctic bases and their expeditioners perfect for planning long-term space missions, he said.

Since 1993, NASA has run a joint program with the Australian Antarctic Division studying human health and how small groups adapt to many months of isolation working in the coldest place on earth.

“Australia’s Antarctic program has some of the most isolated stations in Antarctica where we have total isolation for up to nine months of the year,” said Jeff Ayton, the division’s chief medical officer.

He said Australia’s Antarctic stations were good analogs for space travel and figuring out how people get along in close environments.

“It’s an extreme environment, and we’ve got real people in real hazardous situations, and their survival is dependent on technology and complex systems not too dissimilar to survival in space,” Ayton said. “We also have wide experience of the medical conditions that can occur in Antarctic stations, and they are of interest to people planning for long-term missions to Mars and other exploratory missions.”

Challenging medical conditions
In particular, NASA has shown interest in the division’s decades-old experience in using super-generalist doctors at its bases. Some of these have been recruited from rural Australia, home of traditional country doctors who are adept at tackling just about any medical challenge.
Doctors down south have conducted brain surgery, fixed fractures and given counseling on mental health problems.

“We have managed pregnancies in Antarctica. That is part of the medical spectrum we have to deal with,” Ayton said.

Such broad experience would be crucial on a long-term mission to Mars or beyond.

Other medical conditions also present challenges.

Studies have shown Antarctic expeditioners suffer vitamin D deficiencies through lack of sunlight, depression as well as weaker immune systems.

Ayton said studies have shown the reactivation of latent viruses, such as the Epstein-Barr virus or other members of the herpes virus family.

“It’s not fully known to date what causes immune suppression. We’ve looked at psychological factors on the immune system. We’ve looked at vitamin D effects on the immune system and the stresses in small, confined environments,” he said, adding studies have shown similar changes to the immune system in space.

Lugg said viruses tend to lie dormant in the body and then reactivate in space or in Antarctica.

“No one has exhibited any clinical disease. This is the other interesting thing. Although they have altered their immune status, there is no clinical disease that we’ve been able to detect in Antarctica to show for the altered immune response,” he said.

Hearing voices
Mental health is another top issue. Being confined to a small base with a dozen or so colleagues for months away from family and friends can be a major source of stress for some expeditioners.

Lugg and Ayton said the vast number of people adapted well to life in Antarctica, with only very rare cases of expeditioners suffering mental breakdowns.

Lugg did a 25-year study of documented behavioral health problems in Antarctica and said the incidence rate was 4 percent of all primary consultations to the base doctor.

“You have sleep problems, but what you are looking for are the classic psychosis episodes,” Lugg said. “There was a guy one year who heard babies cry. He came to the doctor and he said, ‘I’m hearing voices.’ Fortunately, he was able to be got out because it was just before the close of winter.”

While such cases were rare, having just one episode in Antarctica or in space could be disastrous.

“However many you have going to Mars in a tin can and someone has a major psychotic event, they are going to have great difficulty handling that.”

Pre-expedition health and psychological screening, and possibly genetic testing in the future, were crucial.

“We don’t take asthmatics, you don’t take anyone who’s epileptic, who’s on cardiac medication or had a cardiac problem, hypertension — you screen out a vast number of people,” said Lugg, who spent five years working in Washington with NASA’s Office of the Chief Health and Medical Officer until 2006.

Also crucial were the “niceties,” such as understanding human nature as well as cultural differences, Lugg said. “When you are dealing with humans, you’ve got to get back to the very basics, and that is their ability to live together, to work together and the health side of it.”

This included fighting boredom by providing a good variety of food. It also meant understanding that sex and a glass or two of wine with dinner were normal desires.

Ayton said there were no restrictions on expeditioners when it came to sex. Whatever amorous liaisons occurred between expeditioners were their own business during the nine months or more away from families.

“Australia’s Antarctic stations are no different to any other Australian community,” said Ayton, echoing Lugg’s view that it was crucial to keep base life as normal as possible.