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A homesick astronaut on Mars


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There are going to be plenty of technological and physiological hurdles to jump before we land the first astronauts on Mars. But once they’re safely on their journey, another kind of challenge may rear it’s head. What happens when you can no longer see Earth?

Even the quickest Mars trip is going to be long. If you get the timing right, as Dennis Tito plans to, you could manage a round trip to Mars in 501 days. Most missions, especially if they land on the surface and do a bit of exploring, will take longer.

Leaving aside the not-so-tiny medical problems with long-term spaceflight like muscle and bone wastage, eye problems and increased radiation levels — keeping six people happy on a Mars mission is going to be hard. For example, sleep deprivation, as discovered by the Mars 500 simulation participants, can be a problem. Of course, Mars 500 also showed that we can do experiments here on Earth to work out how to overcome these problems.

One thing it’s harder to test for is what happens to someone when they can no longer see their home planet.

Earthshine by Manu Gopinath from Manu Prasad Gopinath on Vimeo.

This bittersweet animation, by Manu Prasad Gopinath, captures some of the loneliness the first astronauts to land on Mars might feel at being so far away from home.

But the truth is we don’t know what astronauts will experience when they finally lose sight of Earth. The moon is as far as anyone has ever been.

For reference, from the moon, the Earth looks like this:

Earthrise from the moon

Taken by Apollo 8 crewmember Bill Anders in orbit around the moon on 24 December 1968. Credit: NASA

From Mars, like this:

Earth as seen by Mars rover Spirit from the surface of the planet in 2004

Earth as seen by Mars rover Spirit from the surface of the planet in 2004. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Texas A&M

David Green is a lecturer in human and aerospace physiology at King’s College London. I spoke to him earlier this year for an article about the Mars 500 simulation, but he’s worked with spacefaring astronauts too. He told me:

“The crewmembers who’ve been to the moon, they all say how disconcerting it was as they got further and further away from Earth. These guys knew that they were going to an object that wasn’t that far away. If you’re going to Mars, at some point the Earth is going to go to the size of a pin, and then you’ll lose sight. What that will do to somebody, who knows?”

It’s a problem that’s been considered before. In her book Packing for Mars, Mary Roach quotes the following passage from the book Space Psychology and Psychiatry:

“In the history of human beings, no one has ever been on the situation when Mother Earth, and all of her nurturing and comforting aspects… has been reduced to insignificance in the sky… It seems possible that it will induce some state of internal uncoupling from the Earth. Such a state might be associated with a broad range of individual maladaptive responses, including anxiety and depressive reactions, suicidal intention, or even psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations or delusions. In addition, a partial or complete loss of commitment to the usual (Earth-bound) system of values and behavioural norms may occur.”

Roach calls it the “earth-out-of-view-phenomenon”, and we can guess at what it might be like, or even whether it exists at all. (In Roach’s book, cosmonaut Sergei Krikalyov dismisses the idea, saying: “Psychologists need to write papers”.)

But we’re really going to need to go to Mars (or some other faraway part of the solar system) to find out for sure.

Kelly Oakes About the Author: Kelly Oakes has a master's in science communication and a physics degree, both from Imperial College London. Now she spends her days writing about science. Follow on Twitter @kahoakes.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. David Cummings 7:31 pm 07/7/2013

    As you say, “There are going to be plenty of technological and physiological hurdles to jump…” and they will come in several categories:
    1. Infrastructure problems (everything from rocket science to water leaks)
    2. Physical health problems (no-gravity, high-radiation, etc)
    3. Psychological problems (cramped quarters, homesickness, etc)

    Earth-out-of-sight has the capability of inducing the most extreme homesickness imaginable. It’s a valid question to ask: can they cope?

    Link to this
  2. 2. pinetree 3:05 am 07/8/2013

    Before the jet age, anyone who immigrated between continents knew the problem. I think they will work it out.

    Psychologically and in terms of relative knowledge, Ferdinand Magellan completed a far more challenging planetary exploration pushing the technology of the day. And he made it back.

    Link to this
  3. 3. brsecu 9:51 am 07/8/2013

    @pinetree
    >Magellan completed a far more challenging planetary exploration pushing the technology of the day. And he made it back.

    No he didn’t.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Raoul 11:15 am 07/8/2013

    Megellan was killed in a pacific ocean island by natives, and Sebastian Elcano could come back to Spain.

    Link to this
  5. 5. BryanBumgardner 11:29 am 07/8/2013

    I wonder:
    1. Homesickness is defined as “distress or impairment caused by an actual or anticipated separation from the specific home environment or attachment objects.” I would include separation from friends and family as well.

    2. Therefore, would it not be wise to raise an individual in an environment similar to Mars for a period of time long enough for them to make the psychological identification of their artificial living space as “home?”

    I think it’s important for the astronauts who are going on this trip to have a certain state of mind. Rather than “leaving home” to explore, they need to feel like they’re “going home” to the place where they belong. That would result in more satisfaction upon their arrival, and ultimately increase chances for a successful mission. It would at least weaken the variable of psychological problems.

    3. This invites some ethical questions about the training process, however. Do the ends justify the means?
    In the case of a required human exodus from Earth, due to some mass extinction event, utilitarianism would defend manipulating someone’s living experience (potentially unbeknownst to them) in order to save the human race. I don’t think the same rules apply when we’re talking basic exploration.

    Just some ideas, of course.

    Link to this
  6. 6. hatemnajdi 4:38 am 07/17/2013

    @BryanBumgardner: “2. Therefore, would it not be wise to raise an individual in an environment similar to Mars for a period of time long enough for them to make the psychological identification of their artificial living space as “home?””

    Don’t you think that The Mars Society could do the job? See http://desert.marssociety.org/

    Link to this
  7. 7. lunazzi 12:36 pm 08/8/2013

    Why it seems to need more than astronaut? Dont you think that a single person could do it? Oriental people is capable of many efforts an occidental cannot. Budist people, fakir, for example. And if a dwarf accepting not to return, the time and cost of the travel will be shortened.

    Link to this

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