In SPACE

ndy Thomas knew he was in for a rough ride the moment JL m he floated into the entrance module of the Mir space station. "It was like going down into a dark mine shaft, pulling myself along a bungee cord between bags of equipment," the Australian-born astronaut recalls. The crawl-way eventually opened into a compartment the size of a Winnebago, where coffee stains dotted the ceiling and walls in areas not already strewn with metal boxes, books and tangled hoses: home to Thomas and two cosmonauts for the next five months of 1998.

That experience was a weekend getaway compared to a round-trip Mars mission, during which astronauts would be cooped up in a capsule for up to eight months at a time and isolated from the rest of the world for two and a half years. Seeing the same few faces day after day, enduring the ills and disorientation of weightlessness, never having a moment alone—marriages and families fall apart over much less. Going to Mars should be one of humanity's greatest adventures, but it could turn into a humiliating fiasco unless mission planners devise ways to keep the space explorers from driving one another crazy.

"On a 10-day shuttle mission you can gut your way through it," Thomas says. But he and others argue that novelty and willpower aren't enough on longer missions. Just as engineers take care not to ask too much of the hardware—building in safety margins and multiple backup systems—they need to have realistic expectations of the users. "To assume that people with the 'right stuff' and the right training can deal with anything is risky," says David F. Dinges, director of the unit for experimental psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. "The people we'll send will be special, but they're not gods."

A look at past missions illustrates what can go wrong. The stress of overwork led to rebellion on the U.S. space station Skylab during the third and final crew rotation, which began in November 1973. The three men had fallen increasingly behind schedule and took a day off against ground controllers' instructions. The Mir space station also was the site of tension, according to reports from astronauts and cosmonauts who shared time there. Language and cultural differences amplified the stress: Americans complained about autocratic Russian leadership; Russians bemoaned the egos of some of their visitors.

These tales of agitation come as no surprise to people who have experienced similar confinement in nuclear submarines, offshore oil-drilling platforms and remote stations in Antarctica. Behavioral scientist Jack Stuster, who has performed studies for NASA, cites the story of a diesel mechanic at a small U.S. Navy outpost in Antarctica who became so crippled with depression that he neglected the facility's only generator. The man's condition could have doomed the entire crew if it hadn't been for the medic who helped him recover.

Interpersonal conflict tops the list of problems gearing up a major effort to learn how better to watch for these problems among astronauts. With NASA's support the National Space Biomedical Research Institute plans to spend about $3 million to investigate the psychology and behavior of isolated groups. The goal is to formulate objective ways to recognize failing performance, says Dinges, the team's associate leader. Previous studies relied on astronauts' own reports, which sometimes gloss over crucial issues. "With trained professionals, they may say they're fine even when they're incapacitated," Dinges says.

These issues may seem obvious, but it

COOPED-UP ASTRONAUTS, such as this team on board the space shuttle Atlantis in January 1997, might not look so cheerful during a half-year journey to Mars.

reported in the diaries of personnel at remote posts that Stuster and others have studied. Predictably, matters that might seem trivial at home, such as feelings of exclusion from a clique or even the exasperation of hearing a bunkmate's jokes time and again, can bloat and blister in tight quarters. Such annoyances have compromised mission goals only rarely, but during a Mars transit a dysfunctional crew could spell disaster.

NASA, following up work by the European and Russian space agencies, is now

COOPED-UP ASTRONAUTS, such as this team on board the space shuttle Atlantis in January 1997, might not look so cheerful during a half-year journey to Mars.

is remarkable how many people overestimate their ability to cope or simply fail to prepare. Some of the first six American astronauts who boarded Mir didn't bring enough to fill their free time, and the result was cabin fever and flaring tempers. Thomas says he vowed not to repeat that mistake. He packed pencils and paper and made sketching his new hobby. "It's a psychological escape when you can't get away physically," he explains.

Thomas is now leading the development of a new NASA training program to make astronauts sensitive to the psychological challenges they will face in space. The initial two-day seminar took place last November and included two astronauts assigned for turns on the upcoming International Space Station. A second phase of training this winter confined a team of astronauts to an isolated spot in the Canadian wilderness for 10 days to complete team tasks.

Stuster insists that the right physical surroundings are also essential for long stints in space. "Humans are incredibly adaptable, but we don't want to subject them to austere conditions," he says. At NASA's new Habitability Design Center in Houston, four architects are helping a team of engineers dream up individual crew quarters for the International Space Station. Soundproof collapsible cubbies will attach to the station's inside wall, each outfitted with an aluminum desk and sleeping harness. Astronauts will be able to personalize their tiny havens with books and photographs held in place by Velcro straps and bungee cords. A simi lar setup could provide private escape for explorers bound for Mars [see "How to Go to Mars," on page 44].

Above all, most experts agree, crew selection is the key to mission success. Hints at a person's potential to endure may lie in their biographies. But it may not be clear how people will get along until they are given an opportunity to spend time together as a group. "There are some people who probably shouldn't go," says Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt. "If you want to test it, put them on a space station for 90 days." B3

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