Red Dwarf lesson for red planet astronauts

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Would-be astronauts hoping to venture to Mars, take note: do not pack your chess sets. "Competitive" board games will be banned from the two- year flight because they could turn the space mission into a potentially disastrous clash of egos rivalling the television series Red Dwarf.

Instead, long-distance space travellers will probably be given a computer "psychologist", like Hal, the eternally calm computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, to which they can pour out their frustrations about the other members of the crew.

They will also be encouraged to play "co-operative" games, such as Dungeons and Dragons, to reduce the stress, boredom, anxiety and depression, which could lead to the biggest systems failure of all. "In an extreme case, [the stress] could jeopardise the mission and the crew's lives," said JoAnna Wood, who has been studying the subject with a team in Houston, home of the US space agency, Nasa.

The ideal Mars team will probably be a six-strong mixed team, with one person having to be the "jolly, outgoing" type to lift the others through low periods, reckons Dr Wood, who yesterday led a discussion about the psychology of long space missions at an astronomers' meeting in Birmingham.

She knows close confinement for long periods can affect people: a colleague sent to study scientists in the Antarctic became so unpopular that one of them smashed the researcher's computer - which belonged to Dr Wood.

As spacecraft stay in orbit longer, their occupants' weaknesses are highlighted. "The Russians had to end two missions early because the crew had psychological problems which showed up as psychosomatic symptoms. And there was an incident on the Mir space station involving a chess match," said Dr Wood. What happened? "We don't know exactly, but they don't allow them to play chess up there any more."

The ideal Mars astronaut would be "adventurous, able to tolerate boredom and able to work as a team", Dr Wood said.

A key element could be a computer to which crew members could pour out their anger: "It would give them the opportunity to vent their frustrations without having to talk to somebody who was part of the problem."