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Preparing for human Mars mission, the loneliest job in the world

Preparing for human Mars mission, the loneliest job in the world

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Dr Alexander Kumar tells us about living in and researching the coldest, darkest place on planet earth.

As Nasa's largest robot in history, Curiosity rover, sends information back from the Red Planet, there is still one thing only humans can ultimately find out.

Will astronauts heading for Mars be able to stand the isolation?

Dr Alexander Kumar calls ‘White Mars’ home. It is the coldest, darkest environment on the planet. Currently, there is no way out and no access in.

Concordia station is a two cylindrical, three-story tower in the heart of Antarctica jointly run by the French Polar Institute and Italian Antarctic Programme. There is nothing but ice for more than 700 miles in most directions and the outside temperature recently hit -112F (-148F with wind chill).

Aside from being the only doctor for a 13 person crew, Dr. Kumar conducts research for the European Space Agency’s Human Spaceflight program. He observes and analyzes the physiological and psychological effects of living in extreme isolation.

"The work may one-day help shape a manned mission to Mars, and more importantly, see it safely return," Dr. Kumar said.

BBC Future spoke to Dr Kumar about life at the station. The following is excerpted from the full length interview.

What can Antarctica teach us about Mars?

Living here is the closest anyone can come to living on the surface of another planet.  I have also coined the term Planet Concordia to describe this feeling.  Despite significant differences in surface gravity and atmospheric pressure between Antarctica and the Polar Regions on Mars, the average Martian surface temperature is -55C (-67F), similar to our extreme cold temperatures at Concordia.

Our crew has been completely isolated since February. We are more isolated from civilization than the astronauts living on board the International Space Station.  It is impossible for us to leave the base until mid-November.

How does living in such a remote place affect you psychologically?

There are many important psychological factors associated with confinement, isolation and sensory deprivation.

One of my predecessors told me that “monotony” was the largest challenge from living in isolation at Concordia.  I disagree.  Like him, I have access to information – via the internet, telephone and the rest of the crew.  In fact we are surrounded by information, compared to the heroic age of polar exploration.  Life is not monotonous - there is huge potential to stimulate your mind – through hobbies, conversation and news from the outside world.  However, as winter progresses, overwintering crew members regress further into their own rooms and minds, which can be dangerous- living in isolation and isolating yourself from your only access to human contact on the station.

Life changes from being in 'technicolor' to black and white over winter.  It’s almost as if our senses become under stimulated and wither in the darkness, ice and silence. So when a new stimuli comes along it can be disproportionately fascinating. It has been some time since I stubbed my toe walking around the station barefooted in the dark.  But I can tell you it hurt each and every-time, even more.  Also our reaction times have slowed down. Recently the wind caught a heavy door, slamming it into my face.  I suffered moderate concussion for three days.  In daylight with my normal senses back home, I know I would have stopped it first. But perhaps the main factor is dealing with the degree of separation from our lives back home ‘on Earth’.

What can be done to alleviate the problems for future Martian astronauts?

Romain Charles – one of the crew members of the Mars 500 experiment, who spent 520 days in isolation simulating a mission to Mars told me there is no such thing as a one way mission to Mars.  For a trip to Mars, he said, the astronauts must have a plan to come back to Earth eventually.  Even if it’s a small hope, it must be there, to remain sane.  Living at Concordia, we only talk about and look forward to one date - the arrival of the first plane, our first contact with the outside world, expected in November.

The Apollo lunar missions also give us some clues. Astronauts reported being kept very busy, adhering to a tight schedule to maximize research and to make sure they did not have time to think about the distance and separation from their home planet.  It is similar here - if you let your mind wander during the Antarctic winter to dwell upon such negativity, I have seen it can be very dangerous and spiral out of your control. Interestingly, it appears those with predefined roles and technical responsibilities requiring busy, daily routines display the least problems.

Has your time in Concordia led you to any conclusions about the ideal crew for a manned Mars mission?

Although it is difficult to say how many crew members would be ideal - balancing skills, ability for self-sufficiency and finite resources available, against increased medical risk, I believe it would need a psychologically and physically screened diverse, multinational crew – ideally with past space experience or having spent time at a place like Concordia. They would need to be mentally resilient and have a full complement of skills to ensure that they can all contribute to the mission, remain active and in a way distracted from dwelling on their isolation.   All those interested must be driven by the innate curiosity and enthusiasm to answer life’s greatest question in the same way those had who replied to a fabled advertisement once offered by Sir Ernest Shackleton, "Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness.”

That said, providing an interactive, safe, stimulating and supportive spacecraft environment would prove as important as selecting a crew made of the ‘right stuff’.

You say a mixed-sex crew would be ideal – why?

At Concordia, we have one female crewmember among a crew of 12 men.  There is the potential for it to cause problems - previous Antarctic missions have been plagued by jealousy.

An exclusively male crew was used during the recent Mars 500 mission without major conflicts, much to the surprise of psychologists.  Importantly it showed that such a mission could be possible.

But we have come a long way from the early male dominated polar expeditions.  Women play an equally important role in space.  Charles [from the Mars 500 mission] believes that any crew should made up of both males and females - both sexes bringing balance to a mission.

Finally, you are the only doctor on the base, so what happens if you get sick?

I can't talk about medical issues on the base here, but from my time living and working here, I have learnt to hope and pray that I am never put in the same position as the Russian doctor Leonid Rogozov who in 1961, had to remove his own appendix with local anesthetic.  In terms of Mars missions, it may be a good idea to send two doctors... just in case.

Dr Alexander Kumar writes about his experiences living at Concordia on his blog www.AlexanderKumar.com.

[via: BBC Future]

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Sonya James

Contributing Writer

Sonya James is a multimedia producer based in New York. With creativity and innovation in mind, she speaks to diverse voices on topics from racism in the art world to the patriotic nature of southern food. She holds a Masters Degree in Community Development. Disclosure