Tech UPTechnologyThe big problem of the trip to Mars: being...

The big problem of the trip to Mars: being locked up with other people for a year and a half

If we ask anyone where we will be in 40 years, the most likely answer will be Mars. But how to get there? The most important ideologue of the project to set foot on the red planet is the aeronautical engineer Robert Zubrin , who with the publication in 1997 of his book The Case for Mars galvanized all the hopes and dreams of a myriad of romantics and NASA adopted his project as a study-base for his future plans to travel to the red planet.

It is a journey in stages. According to Zubrin, the first launch would send a return vehicle, life support for nine people, a nuclear reactor, a chemical processing plant and a series of robotic rovers to Mars. The crew, which would travel on the second launch, would be on the red planet for a year and a half preparing for the next mission and making the planet somewhat more habitable for the human species. At the same time, and a few hundred kilometers away, a second vehicle would land and start creating the propellant needed for the next mission. In this way, each year two missions would arrive on Mars: one carrying the relief crew and the other, automatically, to prepare the next mission.

The big problem of a Martian base

Now, the biggest problem of Martian colonization is not, as we might believe, transportation, but in developing the necessary skills to use Martian resources and make the base relatively self-sufficient .

The beginnings will be hard, and the astronauts, the first Martians, will stay on the planet for longer and longer times: four years, then six…, living in the first permanent bases established in another body of the Solar System: domes of 50 meters in diameter built with plastics such as Kevlar or Spectra. Plants genetically modified to adapt to the level of Martian carbon dioxide will be the first non-human living beings we will carry . And this is the crucial step. Freeman Dyson, one of the greatest and most imaginative scientists of the 20th century, called attention to this fact: the expansion of the human being through space depends radically on biology . Biotechnological advances are what will set the pace and the ability to travel through space: “any manned exploration program must be focused on biology,” he said.

But what about humans?

Even more worrying is the behavior of the main component of the mission: the human being. How does psychology work on a long-term trip? If you get angry on earth you can slam the door and walk away, but what about in space? How does space travel affect human sexuality? And the food? Who is willing to feed themselves for at least five years with ‘astronaut food’?

Surprisingly, throughout its history NASA has not paid much attention to the psychology, sociology, and anthropology of human spaceflight . Moreover, in the mid-1990s, NASA’s scientific managers even advised abandoning any line of research in this direction. Psychologist Albert A. Harrison has commented: “Perhaps the ‘hard’ scientists who run the show and who are accustomed to quantitative results find the ‘soft’ sciences fuzzy, imprecise, and somewhat unreliable.” In contrast, the Russians, with their long-term programs in space, have integrated behavioral scientists into their teams. Although the cultural differences between the two countries also play a certain role: while the Russians come from an environment where the needs of the group are emphasized, the Americans have been educated in personal initiative and competitiveness .

Be that as it may, there are four factors that must be taken into account when traveling through space , which were already revealed in a 1985 NASA publication entitled Living Aloft: Human Requirements for Extended Spaceflight : the size of the crew, its composition, the duration of the mission and the adaptation of the crew to the technology. A high number of crew members has its advantages -greater ability to solve problems, a source of social stimulation…- but also its drawbacks -leadership problems, confrontations…- On the other hand, an increase in diversity is also beneficial, although causes relationship problems. But it is the duration of the mission and its final objective that can pose the most problems , and that is something that can hardly be solved. Psychologically speaking, spending six months in the International Space Station orbiting the Earth is not the same as being in flight to Mars, far from any possibility, no matter how remote, of receiving help. On the journey to Mars, the astronauts would essentially be alone. All in all, and to study in depth the behavior and relationship problems that can arise in a space trip, some psychologists suggest that it would be necessary that, before flying to Mars, it would be very useful to use or create a base in Antarctica . In fact, in certain remote bases, the human presence is continuous, which provides an excellent laboratory to study in detail human behavior in isolated conditions.


Zubrin, R. (2022) The case for Mars, Free Press

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