Big Brother is watching you . . . in outer space

As Kerry Katona and her housemates passed a few weeks in the Celebrity Big Brother house, a much more ambitious version of the game was drawing to a close in Moscow. Mars500 is run by the European Space Agency (ESA) and is testing, among other things, just how difficult it might be for astronauts to live with each other during a mission to Mars.

ESA's partner in this project is the charmingly named Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems. When it comes to spending a year or more in a tightly confined Mars mission craft, problems there will undoubtedly be. The mission involves being cooped up in a spacecraft for roughly six months each way. The astronauts will be exposed to cancer-inducing radiation and bone-weakening lack of gravity. However, it is the unknown psychological effects that worry the space agencies.

The astronauts' sense of isolation will be unprecedented. The further along their trajectory they go, the worse for them it will get. By the time they reach Mars, radio communications will be suffering delays of up to 20 minutes because of the distances involved. Spoken communications with earth will be replaced by email.

To see how astronauts might deal with this situation, ESA has crammed six men - three Russians, two Europeans and one Chinese - into an isolation chamber for 520 days. The "travel" phase began in June 2010. On the first day of February this year, they were allowed to open the hatch to the "Mars lander". Eleven days later, they simulated landing on Mars. For just over a week, they wore their spacesuits and conducted experiments on a reconstruction of the planet's surface.

At the moment, the crew is in the "return to earth" phase. The simulation will end on 5 November. After the debrief, we will have a unique insight
into what happens in the minds of those condemned to spend too long in inescapably close proximity to other human beings.

We already have some clues. Without intervention from ground control, things can get far enough out of proportion for astronauts to go on strike. That was how the crew of Skylab responded in 1973, when they felt that those on the ground were asking too much and offering too little support.

Life on Mars

Schisms and cliques form easily in isolation, too. Mars mission enthusiasts who camped in the Arctic and simulated performing simple tasks eventually went tribal, falling into groups that seemed willing to let members of other groups die unnecessarily. When the member of one group had a leaking (pretend) helmet - certain death on Mars - another group refused to let him take priority in the (pretend) airlock.

It all sounds amusing, but schisms are a grave threat, given that the likely make-up of a Mars crew will be as diverse as the population of the Big Brother house. The mission will need pilots, engineers, geologists and medical personnel. The chances of tribalism arising seem rather high.

So far, however, reports from the Mars500 crew suggest that those with the right stuff will survive the proximity. At least they don't have Jedward on board, so it's not a test of the extreme limits of endurance. We can only ask so much, even of our astronauts.


Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 12 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron vs the shires