Humans will get to Mars in the not-so-distant future. We know that. What we don’t know is how a journey to the Red Planet will affect us both mentally and physically.

NASA is turning to the White Continent to learn how people might deal with isolation in an extreme environment. The space agency announced in September that it will team with the National Science Foundation (NSF), which manages the U.S. Antarctic Program, to study the effects of living in the remote and harsh polar regions.

Astronauts will have to spend many months isolated, confined, and in an extreme environment — what the acronym-loving agency refers to as ICE — on any possible mission to Mars. It makes sense to use the Ice, as scientists and others who work and live in Antarctica refer to the frozen continent, as a social science laboratory.

Polar scientists and support personnel can spend up to a year or more at an Antarctic research station in one stint. At some locations, such as the U.S. Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, nobody goes in or out from about mid-February until the end of October. (Former Russian cosmonaut Valeri Vladimirovich Polyakov might just shrug his shoulders at those numbers. He holds the record for the longest single spaceflight in human history, spending more than 14 months on the very cramped Mir space station.)

This is a subject I know a little about. I spent a year at the geographic South Pole, from October 2003 to October 2004, working on a construction crew to build a new research facility in the middle of Nowhere, Antarctica.

Months of 24-hour summer sunlight are followed by weeks of twilight, before months of darkness mark the lonely stretch of the winter. Temperatures can drop below minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit. In these conditions, you stuff yourself into layers of thermal underwear, fleece and a goose-down parka before heading outside, with not a patch of flesh showing.

It’s like an astronaut preparing for a spacewalk. That’s the adventure part.

It’s the same routine day in, day out – what we call Groundhog Day. And it’s a little crazy, as over time, absent external stimuli, your brain struggles to recall simple words, and you find yourself staring blankly after months of tedium — what we call in very nonscientific terms as becoming toasty.

The movie schedule includes screenings of The Thing and The Shining, to give you an idea of the dark sense of humor that evolves in such a place.

“Isolation impacts the human brain in many ways — in terms of physiology and psychology — and we are only now starting to understand these effects,” says Dr. Alexander Kumar, a Global Health medical doctor and clinical researcher for Mahidol Oxford Research Unit, Thailand.

The well-traveled doctor has been to more than 90 countries, and he has participated in a number of Arctic and Antarctic expeditions. In 2012 he spent about nine months, including the winter, at the French-Italian Antarctic base of Concordia. Not only was he the medical doctor for his small crew, but he was working for the European Space Agency on the very same problems as NASA is now — how far can we push the human mind and body and still expect success?

“There are performance-enhancing drugs; however, these are all short-term fixes,” Kumar says in reply to one of my questions over email about coping strategies. The British doctor is currently in India running a cerebral malaria study.

“Good exercise, good sleep and good team work are all crucial towards maintaining optimum health over long-term missions, expeditions and difficult diplomatic placements,” he adds.

Kumar notes there was only one woman among the 13-member team — a skewed social dynamic that caused problems. “I am not sure whose decision this was exactly, nor what their hypothesis would have been,” he says. “The relationships that were made and broken left the team partly broken. Fortunately, everyone survived the winter.”

The first group of men to winter over in Antarctica was the Belgica expedition of 1898-99, when their ship got stuck in the ice. Several men reportedly went insane. Only a handful of intrepid explorers spent the winter in Antarctica — on purpose or not — in the first half of the 20th century. Since the mid-1950s, humans have continuously occupied the continent in pursuit of international peace and research.

More than a few studies have already been devoted to just how crazy an idea it is to strand small groups of humans together for long, isolated stretches of time.

One meta-analysis of more than 40 years of research on winter-over psychology by Lawrence A. Palinkas in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at University of California, San Diego, found that the “human experience in Antarctica suggests that behavior and performance in ICE environments is seasonal or cyclical, situational, social, and salutogenic.”

That last word refers to a theory that stress could actually be beneficial and promote health. Certain individuals, Palinkas concluded, actually thrive in extreme environments, “particularly those with a low need for social interaction.”

The new NASA study, led by Candice Alfano, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at the University of Houston, will begin at the end of the Southern Hemisphere summer in February 2017. It will recruit about 110 people from the South Pole Station and the much larger coastal base, McMurdo Station.

By studying volunteers from both stations, researchers hope to understand the greatest sources of stress, according to a NASA press release. Volunteers will complete periodic computer-based questionnaires, provide saliva samples, and wear a monitor that records sleep and wake cycles.

The idea is to eventually “provide an efficient means of monitoring signs and symptoms that a behavioral condition may be developing. Therefore, allowing early detection and early intervention,” notes Lauren Leveton, a member of NASA’s Behavioral Performance team.

Can humans truly take the leap across a chunk of the solar system, a round-trip that would take more than a year to complete? Kumar reflects from his own experiences and sums it up thus: “Some humans are mentally capable to go to Mars; others may not be; and it’s been suggested that a few should be sent there regardless of their status.”


Image Credit: Shutterstock

Formerly the world’s only full-time journalist covering research in Antarctica, Peter became a freelance writer and digital nomad in 2015. Peter’s focus for the last decade has been on science journalism, but his interests and expertise include travel, outdoors, cycling, and Epicureanism (food and beer). Follow him at @poliepete.