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BBC Future

Antarctica to Mars: The loneliest job in the world

  • Remote stay
    Concordia Station, high on the Antarctic Plateau, is perhaps the most isolated place on Earth. (Copyright: Alexander Kumar & Erick Bondoux ESA/ IPEV/ ENEA)
  • Light and dark
    The French-Italian run station, built in 2005, is more than 1,600km (1,000miles) from the geographic South Pole. (Copyright: Alexander Kumar/ESA/IPEV/ENEA)
  • Final look
    The last plane departed the base in February, leaving the crew alone and isolated for the nine months until November. (Copyright: Alexander Kumar/ESA/IPEV/ENEA)
  • Cold front
    Thirteen European researchers call the station home, including Dr Alexander Kumar, the only medical doctor on the base. (Copyright: Alexander Kumar/ESA/IPEV/ENEA)
  • White Mars
    Its remoteness means that it is an ideal place to understand potential physiological and psychological stresses of a manned Mars mission. (Copyright: Alexander Kumar/ESA/IPEV/ENEA)
  • Brain games
    Dr Kumar carries out tests to understand how the isolation, routine and environment affects the crews wellbeing and cognitive function. (Copyright: Alexander Kumar/ESA/IPEV/ENEA)
  • Spot of tennis?
    He says that camaraderie, a sense of humour and regular hobbies are important to help the crew deal with the isolation. (Copyright: Alexander Kumar/ESA/IPEV/ENEA)
  • Other worlds
    A regular routine – such as operating and maintaining the station’s telescopes - can help people cope with the extreme environment. (Copyright: Alexander Kumar/ESA/IPEV/ENEA)
Mars is once again in the spotlight after Nasa successfully landed its biggest ever robot on the Red Planet - an achievement that naturally raises the question of when man will first set foot on the red Planet.

 

Already, researchers are hard at work trying to understand what it would take to succeed in such a mission. One of those is Dr Alexander Kumar, based at the Concordia research station in the centre of Antarctica,  a place so remote - and so cold - that it is only possible to get in and out for three months of the year.

He is trying to understand the physical and psychological effects of human space travel, particularly the role of extreme isolation. BBC Future spoke to Dr Kumar about life at the station and how his stay may be the fore runner for a manned mission to the red Planet.

Can you describe where you are now?

I am in a place I have come to call ‘White Mars’ - the heart of Antarctica.

It is the coldest, darkest and most extreme environment on our planet. The outside temperature has again fallen below -80C (-112F) or -99.9C (-148F) with wind chill - the extreme limit of its scale. Inside, the window is frozen over, entombed with ice and it remains dark outside, as it has done so 24 hours a day for the past three months.  And we are at an equivalent altitude of 3800m above sea level, making it difficult to breathe.

We are completely alone and isolated here from February to November. The French refer to people who over-winter here as 'Hivernauts', but, unlike astronauts, we have no 'mission control'.  

Concordia base is unique in that it is jointly run by the French Polar Institute and Italian Antarctic Programme.  It consists of two cylindrical, three-story towers – a shape that stirs your imagination to think they could have arrived within a Saturn V rocket. It is strange to refer to it at home, but that is how it has come to feel.  The base is our life-support system in a region where there is nothing but ice for more than 1,000km (700 miles) in most directions. 

What do you do there?

I am the only British member of a European crew of 13 currently living at Concordia station.  I am responsible for assessing documenting - and treating where necessary - any ailments in the mind or body. I have to expect the unexpected, prepare myself for anything and when it arrives deal with it onsite.

Alongside my role as the station doctor, I am conducting research for the European Space Agency’s Human Spaceflight programme, investigating the physiological and psychological effects of living in isolation at this extreme. My research will help to understand how far we can push humans, particularly in regard to extreme physiology and psychology.  The work may one-day help shape a manned mission to Mars, and more importantly, see it safely return. 

What can Antarctica teach us about Mars?

Living here is the closest anyone can come to living on the surface of another planet.  I have also coined the term Planet Concordia to describe this feeling.  Despite significant differences in surface gravity and atmospheric pressure between Antarctica and the Polar Regions on Mars, the average Martian surface temperature is -55C (-67F), similar to our extreme cold temperatures at Concordia. 

Our crew has been completely isolated since February. We are more isolated from civilization than the astronauts living onboard the International Space Station.  It is impossible for us to leave the base until mid-November.

Alongside studying and reacting to changes in crew dynamics, we have to deal with any day to day challenges involving life-support-system maintenance and equipment failure and breakdown.  We have to be completely self-sufficient.  All our food is canned, tinned, dried and prepackaged - there is no method of delivery here during winter.  We are alone - the same as any Mars Mission would be.

How does living in such a remote place affect you psychologically?

There are many important psychological factors associated with confinement, isolation and sensory deprivation.

One of my predecessors told me that “monotony” was the largest challenge from living in isolation at Concordia.  I disagree.  Like him, I have access to information – via the internet, telephone and the rest of the crew.  In fact we are surrounded by information, compared to the heroic age of polar exploration.  Life is not monotonous - there is huge potential to stimulate your mind – through hobbies, conversation and news from the outside world.  However, as winter progresses, overwintering crew members regress further into their own rooms and minds, which can be dangerous- living in isolation and isolating yourself from your only access to human contact on the station.

Things are different. Your senses are not bombarded in the way they are at home and in the winter darkness, they become ‘blunted’, meaning any new sensory stimulation remains a luxury.  We have an inventive chef - Giorgio Deidda  - who continually strives to surprise us with new taste combinations.  He is spending his 3rd winter at Concordia and surprises the crew with nationally themed evenings and his own trademarked dishes including digestifs such as his whiskey sorbet.

But ultimately life changes from being in 'technicolor' to black and white over winter.  It’s almost as if our senses become under stimulated and wither in the darkness, ice and silence. So when a new stimuli comes along it can be disproportionately fascinating. It has been some time since I stubbed my toe walking around the station barefooted in the dark.  But I can tell you it hurt each and every-time, even more.  Also our reaction times have slowed down. Recently the wind caught a heavy door, slamming it into my face.  I suffered moderate concussion for three days.  In daylight with my normal senses back home, I know I would have stopped it first.  

But perhaps the main factor is dealing with the degree of separation from our lives back home ‘on Earth’.

Could technology help overcome that isolation?

Surprisingly, I often envy the previous polar expeditions’ lack of communications.  Nowadays, with heightened technological capability and wide satellite communications access for those overwintering in Antarctica, messages, problems and bad news are transmitted into our minds – whether it is a loved one passing away or salary difficulties.  Such news is airdropped into the station by email, telephone, Facebook and video call, sometimes exploding like a bomb.  There is no release - you are in a prison of your own mind here. 

But being disconnected can bring new unexpected challenges.  A fellow crew-member recently described to me how he “felt dead” and “not real”.  Certainly depersonalization and “derealisation” have been recognized as features of significant psychological stress.  He went on to say that when he went on Facebook it was as if his “previous life was continuing whilst his empty body continued on here in the Antarctic wasteland”.

How do you deal with the isolation?

A sense of camaraderie is crucial as well as regular hobbies.  Reading and listening to music makes a huge impact.  I recently rediscovered Jerry Lee Lewis – which when played after lunch, lifts peoples’ spirits more than any drug can, perhaps providing an element of ‘escapism’ from station life.  

But everyone has different tastes. For example, I often have a late night cup of tea and toast with Dr Igor Petenko, our Russian Meteorologist, while listening to his favourite classical music.

Martian crews would also need to deal with physiological challenges – has your experience given you any insight into these?

All ground-based attempts to recreate Mars lack one crucial factor – the lack of zero gravity – responsible for some of the most restrictive and challenging elements faced by humans in space. I was recently in contact with Britain's only current astronaut-in-training - Tim Peake – who reminded me that even over relatively short periods, weightlessness can affect everything from balance and cardiovascular health to muscle mass and bone density.

In addition inter-planetary astronauts are going to have to deal with things like cosmic rays, Mars surface radiation and storms of dust or ‘fines’ - particles that are smaller than dust particles.

Luckily, here at Concordia, we don’t have to deal with those kinds of things. Being But there are some physiological challenges we experience that are similar – such as disturbed sleep patterns, increased cardiovascular stress from long periods of relative inactivity and Vitamin D depletion due to the lack of sunlight.  Whilst here, I track changes in the crews circadian rhythms brought on by the long periods of darkness, alongside mood changes, social interaction and levels of stress.    

Living in the Antarctic winter darkness, it is difficult to perceive the passage of time. In situations like this it is very important to maintain a regular busy routine to avoid the risk of ‘free-run’ – a process where internal body clocks disintegrate cycling and resetting continually.

Even if you avoid extremes like this, waking up in the darkness feels like a groundhog day of sorts.  It takes an extraordinary amount of time for your mind to fire up, like an engine starting up in the cold.  My research testing people’s cognitive performance during this period of complete darkness also demonstrates slowness in the mind, memory difficulties and inability to concentrate – not a good combination when operating life support systems in deep space or in temperatures of -80C (-112F).

What can be done to alleviate the problems for future Martian astronauts?

Romain Charles – one of the crew members of the Mars 500 experiment, who spent 520 days in isolation simulating a mission to Mars told me there is no such thing as a one way mission to Mars.  For a trip to Mars, he said, the astronauts must have a plan to come back to Earth eventually.  Even if it’s a small hope, it must be there, to remain sane.  Living at Concordia, we only talk about and look forward to one date - the arrival of the first plane, our first contact with the outside world, expected in November.

The Apollo lunar missions also give us some clues. Astronauts reported being kept very busy, adhering to a tight schedule to maximize research and to make sure they did not have time to think about the distance and separation from their home planet.  It is similar here - if you let your mind wander during the Antarctic winter to dwell upon such negativity, I have seen it can be very dangerous and spiral out of your control. Interestingly, it appears those with predefined roles and technical responsibilities requiring busy, daily routines display the least problems. 

Personally, I have maintained a relatively normal sleep pattern keeping myself busy and through exercise. But overwintering in such isolation is a personal journey and challenge.  I liken overwintering to dredging the ocean’s depths of your mind.  You never know what you will find, but have to feel confident- knowing you can deal with anything.

Has your time in Concordia led you to any conclusions about the ideal crew for a manned Mars mission?

Although it is difficult to say how many crew members would be ideal - balancing skills, ability for self-sufficiency and finite resources available, against increased medical risk, I believe it would need a psychologically and physically screened diverse, multinational crew – ideally with past space experience or having spent time at a place like Concordia. They would need to be mentally resilient and have a full complement of skills to ensure that they can all contribute to the mission, remain active and in a way distracted from dwelling on their isolation.   All those interested must be driven by the innate curiosity and enthusiasm to answer life’s greatest question in the same way those had who replied to a fabled advertisement once offered by Sir Ernest Shackleton, "Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness.”

That said, providing an interactive, safe, stimulating and supportive spacecraft environment would prove as important as selecting a crew made of the ‘right stuff’.

You say a mixed-sex crew would be ideal – why?

At Concordia, we have one female crewmember among a crew of 12 men.  There is the potential for it to cause problems - previous Antarctic missions have been plagued by jealousy.

An exclusively male crew was used during the recent Mars 500 mission without major conflicts, much to the surprise of psychologists.  Importantly it showed that such a mission could be possible.  

But we have come a long way from the early male dominated polar expeditions.  Women play an equally important role in space.  Charles [from the Mars 500 mission] believes that any crew should made up of both males and females - both sexes bringing balance to a mission.  

Finally, you are the only doctor on the base, so what happens if you get sick?

I can't talk about medical issues on the base here, but from my time living and working here, I have learnt to hope and pray that I am never put in the same position as the Russian doctor Leonid Rogozov who in 1961, had to remove his own appendix with local anaesthetic.  In terms of Mars missions, it may be a good idea to send two doctors... just in case.

 Dr Alexander Kumar FRGS is the Concordia Station doctor (French Polar Institute/ Italian Antarctic Programme) and European Space Agency-sponsored Research MD

 To follow his experiences living at Concordia, read his blog www.AlexanderKumar.com.