The first manned, round-trip to Mars could involve up to three years of travel time, so researchers from Northwestern University will be monitoring the crews of two simulated flights to the Red Planet to learn how to help astronauts work and live together in a space equivalent to one small room. Using simulated habitats in Texas and Moscow, the project will be setup to uncover new ways to predict and minimize conflicts that could jeopardize future deep space missions.

Modern technology has shrunk our world to such an extent that there are very few places on the globe that can't be reached in a few days, but going to Mars would involve the sort of travel time not seen since the days of sail. Not only would it mean spending one to three years as far as 250 million mi (402 million km) from Earth, it would also mean passing that time in a level of isolation that's hard to imagine.

In the days of the great sailing ships, some voyages, like whaling expeditions, would have crews spend years out of sight of land. Even after the development of steam turbines it was still accepted well into the 1960s that going from London to Sydney by ship could take over a month. And today, the crews of nuclear submarines routinely go on patrols that involve submerging and not coming to the surface again until three months later.

But a mission to Mars would be something very different. Not only would it mean a voyage lasting years, but doing so in a spacecraft with about as much space and privacy of a studio apartment – much smaller than that of an attack submarine and more like a motor cruiser where you're locked inside the saloon. And you would have to share that space with a number of other highly educated, highly motivated, overachieving civilians, which might not be the best mix for a harmonious life.

Worse, such a mission would be one where nothing much would happen for long periods of time in a craft that would have no sense of movement and where looking out the window (if there is one) would be staring into utter, featureless darkness most of the time. Add into that the time delays talking to Earth and many of the other limitations and you have a recipe for psychological stress not seen since the earliest Antarctic expeditions of the last century.

The Northwestern team led by professors Noshir Contractor and Leslie DeChurch will explore how analog astronauts can handle isolation, sleep deprivation, stress, and having to deal with mission control being linked by nothing but a 20 minute radio lag. The work will be conducted with NASA's Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) in the Johnson Space Center in Houston and the SIRIUS mission at the Institute for Bio-Medical Problems (IBMP) in Russia.

According to Northwestern, the objective is to see how isolation affects how the team functions, how to improve their performance, how to identify potential problems and how to assemble an ideal team. To do this, the researchers are not only working from observations and intuition, but also gathering as much data as possible using metrics on individual performance, moods and psychosocial adaptation.

The new study, which began on February 15, will use analog astronauts as subjects over a 45-day period at the Johnson Space Center. This will include a mock mission control, sound effects, vibrations, and other simulations to mimic actual tasks and emergencies including sleep deprivation. Previous studies of eight analog crews have already shown that problem solving ability under these conditions can cause a performance deterioration of 40 to 80 percent. For space missions, 100 percent is the acceptable standard.

The second half of the experiment will start on March 15 at SIRIUS with four Russians and two Americans on a 120 simulated mission to land on the Moon. The hope is that the two missions will help researchers to choose crews with good chemistry and to help guide existing crews toward more positive behavior, without falling into the trap of groupthink or forming cliques.

"Astronauts are super humans," says DeChurch, a professor in the School of Communication at Northwestern. "They are people who are incredibly physically fit and extremely smart. We're taking an already state-of-the-art crew selection system and making it even better by finding the values, traits and other characteristics that will allow NASA to compose crews that will get along."

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