It’s not rocket science: The importance of psychology in space travel

With manned missions to Mars expected to take 2.5 years, small astronaut crews will face a truly unprecedented form of isolation. Len Williams learns how they’ll cope

<p>The Mars Desert Research Station in Utah is used for scientific research and practice for a manned mission to the red planet</p>

The Mars Desert Research Station in Utah is used for scientific research and practice for a manned mission to the red planet

Before I went to space, I made a cassette with 90 minutes of music from every continent on Earth,” recalls Reinhold Ewald, a German physicist who spent 20 days on the International Space Station in 1997. In the hour and a half it took him to complete his orbit, he would watch the planet pass below him and listen to its people’s music. This timeout was a perfect way to decompress from his high-pressure job, far from his family and normal hobbies.

Over the past year, all of us have experienced some form of isolation due to coronavirus restrictions and the mental health issues it can create. But while those of us locked down on Earth can at least get out the house for a change of scenery, space travellers have no escape from their cramped quarters.

Most astronauts today spend a few months at a time in space, with the longest continual sojourn being a 14-month mission undertaken by cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov in 1994-5. However, if humans travel to Mars, as space agencies plan in the coming decade, the time away from Earth will be much longer. A one way, 170 million-kilometre journey takes roughly six months. If astronauts land on the red planet and spend time there, a mission will likely last two and a half years.

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