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.