On March 28, 1934, Admiral Richard Byrd stood outside his Antarctic shelter watching two red tractors disappear into the void of the Ross Ice Shelf. During this, his second expedition to the continent, the polar explorer and aviator had decided to live alone in an isolated advance base to study the weather through the winter. He would not see the tractors, or any other sign of humanity, for more than four months. Byrd wrote in his diary that at the moment he lost sight of the vehicles, “the things of the world shrank to nothing.”
It is a feeling likely to be magnified for future space travellers to Mars and beyond. As their spaceships accelerate towards alien worlds, the Earth will shrink to a faint blue smudge in the window, before vanishing among the constellations.
With missions looking to get longer, space agencies are using studies of life on Antarctic bases to look at ways of keeping astronauts sane. They are also putting a renewed emphasis on crew selection and compatibility, as well as looking to technological solutions. So, as a service to future space travellers, here are five ways to help keep loneliness in space at bay.
1) Get on with your fellow crew members
Gone are the days when men exuding attitude and ego were considered to have the “right stuff”. If you want to be selected for space, you have to have some of the attributes highly prized by human resources managers, such as being a team player. Russian space psychologists even analyse body language and tone of voice to ensure crew members are compatible.
The epitome of space comradeship was the Apollo 12 crew of Charles Conrad, Alan Bean and Dick Gordon, who spent most of their waking hours together, even driving matching cars. The most dysfunctional crews were probably found on the Shuttle-Mir missions of the 1990s. With their limited Russian language skills, the first Nasa participants found themselves increasingly isolated from their companions. The problems experienced on Mir were hardly helped by power cuts, a fire and a collision with a resupply ship, but they were exacerbated by a breakdown in relationships with controllers and managers on the ground.
Such issues can leave crews feeling unappreciated and even slightly paranoid. Three astronauts visiting the Skylab space station in 1973-1974 went on strike over the burden of assigned work. Back on Earth, a similar stand-off took place a few years ago between UK-based managers and personnel on a British Antarctic base, which required some rapid diplomacy to restore relations.
An alternative strategy is to develop a good working relationship with your companions but not get too friendly with them. After all, you are a crew rather than a bunch of pals on vacation. This approach comes recommended by Apollo 15 Command Module Pilot Al Worden. “It has to remain as a professional relationship,” he says. “There has to be someone in command, and there have to be people who work for [them], and they have to maintain that status during the flight if they’re going to retain any mind at all.”
2) Make friends with a robot
Say you aren’t getting on too well with your crew mates, how about a cyber companion? Science fiction has a long history of robots sharing the emotional burden, from Forbidden Planet’s Robbie the robot and Huey, Dewey, and Louie from Silent Running, to sidekicks such as Doctor Who’s K-9 or the effete C3PO. Astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) are currently sharing their living area with Robonaut 2, a golden-headed humanoid torso mounted on a post. The idea is that Robonauts will be able to perform precise, repetitive tasks without making the sorts of mistakes humans do.