Challenges to human psychology

In many ways the technological and engineering advances that will make living on Mars possible are the easiest part of a Mars mission. These aspects can be designed and tested and repaired. The more fragile element of any Mars colony is the colonists themselves. Imagine living in an isolated, hostile environment with a small number of people with no prospect of travelling home and little opportunity to communicate with loved ones back on earth. The psychological impact of long terms space travel have been observed with astronauts aboard the International Space Station but the impact on our Mars colonists will be even more profound as they are on a one-way ticket. Our Mars colonists will be the most isolated humans that have ever live. They will interact with only a relatively small number of other colonists and real-time communication with Earth will be impossible as there will be a ten minute delay in any message sent between the two planets. There are three immediate factors which will impact on our colonists mental well-being. Isolation - Astronauts on the International Space Station have been observed to suffer from depression, anxiety, fatigue and emotional instability. Imagine how much worse these symptoms could be for anyone living on Mars where communication with home is very difficult and they are likely to be on Mars for a long time. Humans are very social animals and have evolved to thrive in an open and varied community. What happens to us when we are removed form this environment, even if that removal is voluntary. Confinement - Imagine living on Mars where space in any habitation is likely to be as small as possible. It will not be easy to go outside and even then you would be confined within a space suit. Mars colonists will never run freely outdoors and feel the wind in their hair. As Mars colonies mature there may be children born into this confined environment and we have no idea how this might impact on their physical and physiological development. Research has shown that prolonged confinement can lead to stunted development, depression, anxiety, stress and fatigue. Lack of privacy - The colonists will be living closely together in a very confined environment so privacy will be difficult. In addition, they are likely to be under constant monitoring and scrutiny fro mission control on earth. It is even likely that their lives may be live streamed to social media or television, especially if the mission is funded through private companies. So our colonists are going to be living on top of one another and in a metaphorical goldfish bowl. We don’t what additional burden this might place on the mental wellbeing of the colonist and how they will deal with this complete lack of privacy.
Of course, the colonists will be very carefully screened in order to try to find individuals who are best psychologically suited to this long, isolated and hostile mission. But screening can only go so far and it would be a super-human who could thrive in such an environment without any negative side effects. Long term colonists would have to deal with relationships, birth, raising children, ageing and death, all within a very challenging context. Any colony would boast a wide range of skills and professions but whether a mental health professional was included remains to be seen but it could turn out to be a very good investment.

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This article is from the free online course:

How to Survive on Mars: the Science Behind the Human Exploration of Mars

Monash University