Potential travellers to Mars were yesterday starting an experiment in which a team of six Nasa recruits were cooped up in an isolated dome on an ancient volcano in Hawaii for 12 months in order to simulate a visit . . . there. The dome will be completely self-contained except for an array of solar panels standing outside that will create the electricity the six will need. Everything else the Hawaiinauts will need is inside the dome from the start. If any of them want to venture outside the dome they must do so in space suits.
Two previous stages of the programme involved 3-month and 6-month team isolations which, presumably were successful or at least gave the controller-investigators enough feedback to go forward to the third stage. One of the lessons they’ve learned already is that interpersonal conflicts can’t be prevented. Presumably, therefore, all the team have been thoroughly trained in how to resolve, or at least reduce, personal confrontations when they arise. Interestingly, the 12-month team is comprised of three men and three women. In the group photo shown on BBC News, they don’t appear to be paired up as couples and all their names are different.
The reason for the mixed team is probably owing to the experience of Mars-500, a previous experiment held by the Russians three years ago in which six men holed up in a simulated space station for 18 months. The Wikipedia account is equivocal about the results. Immediately after the experiment, the Russians said that there had been no physiological or psychological ill-effects, but an account in the January 2013 Proceedings of the National Academy of Science not only mentions adverse physiological effects but also that one of the original Mars-500 team had to be replaced (was he violent or dangerous in some way or was he just ill?), and that four of them had sleeping problems, avoided exercise and, indeed, took to a state of semi-hibernation.
Whether the six of the current Nasa experiment were already paired up romantically isn’t said but, in view of the Russian experiment, perhaps pairing up is the expectation of the Nasa organisers. This team composition is certainly what anthropologists would strongly advise. Or at least, what they would have advised the Russians concerning the Mars-500 team, had they been asked. is not to expect six young adult males to live closely together for very long without having problems. They would have said that any group of more than three or four young men at the height of their mature adulthood (which is what all the Russian team were) is the beginning of potential group instability.
In the consensus experience of anthropologists who’ve spent time with any hunter-gather tribe in all parts of the world and all sorts of different environments is that six mature males is about the limit for any long-term harmony. A tribe with more than eight or nine mature young adult males will most definitely be fighting over leadership and will inevitably cause the tribe to divide into two, each set of males taking their partners, children and old folk with them. From then onwards there will always be a state of tension between the two new tribes.
Of course, there might be serious rows if and when subsequent pairings in the Hawaiian dome don’t pan out for all of the 12 months, but the Nasa organisers might have felt that this was a lesser risk than the almost certainty of serious social and psychological consequences if a team of six males were alone together for more than a few weeks.
It will be interesting the hear of the results of the Nasa experiment, though I doubt whether it will last 12 months without some significant social readjustment which would throw doubts on the idea of a manned visit when any “readjustments” will not be possible.
But it’s also a matter of cost. If there is any serious intention of man ever going to Mars for mineral exploitation or, indeed, living there permanently, then it would be far safer and less expensive, financially as well as emotionally, to build up a necessary infrastructure there with the use of robots first. A huge amount of experience and technical knowhow would be gained beforehand without endangering a single human life. Infrastructure could also be tested first by sending animals there first and at least testing the physiological parameters thoroughly before our psychological limitations need to be tested.
So I think that the Russian and American experiments, interesting though they might be, are not relevant to what will actually be decided on in a few years when we plan our first serious visit to Mars.