In Meg Howrey’s new novel The Wanderers, three scientists are placed inside a sophisticated simulation for 17 months to prove their mental and physical readiness for a crewed mission to Mars. Living in close quarters prove to be more challenging than they expected.
A disproportionate amount of our public discussions in regarding how and when we might make a crewed mission to Mars seems to be focused on overcoming technological barriers, as opposed to psychological ones. Behind the scenes, the topic seems to have come up a good bit.
If you’ve ever been on a long road trip, then you already know that things can get a little tense sometimes, even among family, friends, and lovers. Now, imagine a 260 day non-stop road trip in the smallest vehicle that can still get the job done. That’s what a crewed journey to Mars would likely be like.
Needless to say, the people we choose to go to Mars would have to be psychologically tough — inhumanly so. Putting people together in closed quarters for long periods of time can be a potentially explosive recipe for infighting, petty rivalries, and even mutiny, as we’ve already seen in several psychological experiments — and even in one real-life example.
You might not know this, but the Space Age has already had its first mutiny. It happened on the fourth mission to America’s first space station: Skylab.
On December 28, 1973 — about two-thirds of their way into their 84 day mission — astronauts Gerald Car, Edward Gibson, and William Pogue shut down communications with NASA and staged a day-long strike during which they relaxed and took in the sights.
The men had been angry about their overwhelming work loads and the demands of constant medical and scientific experiments. Sleep deprivation, claustrophobic, cramped living conditions, and a head cold someone managed to bring aboard the station just added to the misery.
The strike and subsequent negotiations earned the crew some concessions from Ground Control, but they came at a price: none of the astronauts left Earth again. Part of the goal for the Skylab missions was to gain valuable insight into how human beings might adjust to the demands of space travel. The mutiny, while not being the most desirable of outcomes, certainly proved to be instructive. Astronauts aren’t machines: concessions must be made to their humanity.
Since those days, scientific organizations both private and public have conducted numerous experiments that have simulated living in closed or limited environments. Some, like ones conducted at The Mars Desert Research Station, Flashline Mars, and Mars-500 (real-life inspiration for The Wanderers) have been explicitly designed to role-play long-term life on Mars. Others, like missions to the University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2, were created to simulate life in a non-specific, biologically self-sustaining space colony.
There were two missions to Biosphere 2 in the nineties, and both were seriously troubled. The crews of eight were locked inside the domes for two year missions, but as it turns out, creating a self-contained bio-system isn’t as easy as it seems. Flora and fauna inside the domes were dying, and maintaining oxygen at a level safe for human habitation proved to be a recurring problem.
The crew of the first Biosphere mission split into two factions and fought bitterly. Leadership broke down, and crew members were at each other’s throats. They made it through their mission, but barely. The second Biosphere mission went about as well, with the added problem that funding ran short about 18 months in.
The Federal Marshals actually showed up at the Biosphere site to shut it down. It’s probably good that they did so: crew members had resorted to acts of vandalism inside the structure, partially in response to what they believed to be (rightfully, probably) lax scientific standards and experimental conditions different from what they had signed on for.
As of today, all of these experiments are based on hypothetical conditions, but while technology changes, human nature doesn’t.