What is the Hardest Part About Going to Mars?

From an early age, I wanted to be an astronaut. I memorized Mercury astronaut missions. I dreamt of using a manned maneurvering unit to glide through space. I cried when the Challenger exploded. I still dream of going to space, but I know it’s a long shot. Still, space exploration captivates me.

What will be the biggest obstacle to a successful Mars mission? It won’t be inadequate fuel, faulty aerodynamics, or clunky helmets. Social isolation is the greatest barrier to interplanetary travel.

Don’t believe me? Think about the past 520 days of your life (about a year and five months). That’s how long it takes to travel to Mars and return. How many people did you see during that time? How many conversations did you have? Did you attend a sporting event? A play? A worship service? Maybe a loved one was born or passed away. Now wipe those experiences away. Instead, imagine that during this period of your life you lived in cramped quarters with only five other people, no fresh air, and no sunlight.

This is not a mere thought experiment. The experiment happened, with funds from the Russian Academy of Sciences. What happened? Quite a bit. In research recently reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the six volunteer marsonauts completed lots of tasks to keep their minds fresh. They also slept like babies without the daily rigmarole of daily work commutes, grocery shopping, or other daily drivel. Then the guys started sleeping like polar bears in hibernation. Then they started doing less, becoming even more sedentary amidst almost endless boredom. Space is only cool for so long.

The good news? They all made it. There weren’t any major scuffles, and the guys probably formed lifelong friendships. They even showed signs of cognitive improvement. But the marsonaut volunteers each handled the prolonged social isolation differently. One of them shifted to a 25-hr sleep-wake schedule, which meant that he was alone (awake or asleep) 20% of the 520 day mock mission. As the researchers sift through their massive data set (to put it in perspective, they measured 4.396 million minutes of sleep!), I’m sure we’ll learn more about the psychological consequences of prolonged social isolation.

For now, we can still look into the night sky, find the Red Planet, and dream of people visiting sometime in our generation. We know they’ll sleep well—and a lot.