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.
At the cuter end of the robot scale is Kirobo, a 34cm (13 inch) high talking robot, recently launched to the ISS. Designed to provide emotional support to Japanese astronaut Kochi Wakata (due to arrive at the station in November), the robot will be able to recognise his master and respond to his instructions.
Japan has been experimenting with emotionally responsive machines for several years. My particular favourite is Paro, which I first came across during a visit to Japan in 2005. Pick it up and this soft, cuddly, and irresistibly cute, seal cub mewls gently.
The robot seal was designed to improve the quality of life for those in nursing facilities, particularly for elderly people who are feeling lonely or suffering from dementia. Many hospitals use therapy dogs to help patients recover, and the researchers behind Paro claim robot pets can be just as effective in some cases, such as helping to improve brain function in elderly people with cognitive disorders. Anyone who has stroked Paro and been startled at how easy it is to forget that its eyes are plastic, fur synthetic and mewing generated by a microprocessor will have little difficulty in imagining Kochi rapidly accepting Kirobo as a fellow crew member.
For the foreseeable future, taking a real pet dog or cat into space is unlikely to be practical – certainly until someone develops artificial gravity, so a robo-pet would seem to be a good idea.
3) Try to stay in touch
Pretty close to the top of most right-thinking people’s lists of worst pop songs of the 1980s is likely to be Rah Band’s Clouds Across the Moon, outlining the difficulties in the singer having a conversation with flight commander PR Johnson on Mars flight 247. Johnson happens to be on his way to Mars but even astronauts closer to home find communication with Earth challenging. Even in Earth orbit, where there is no time delay, most audio and video conversations are at fixed times via mission control and even supposedly private chats are sometimes overheard. Email has made life considerably easier but still that has the potential to be intercepted.
Nevertheless, reports from astronauts who have described their experiences on long space flights suggest it is extremely important to maintain your emotional ties to the ground. A few pictures from home, a response on Twitter or a quick chat with an amateur radio enthusiast can make all the difference to an astronaut’s mood. It helps that all Nasa communications with the ISS are through individuals known as capsule communicators. These are usually fellow astronauts who are well placed to understand what their comrades in space are going through.
Communicating with a spaceship on its way to Mars will, however, be much tougher. Astronauts on the ISS are only around 350km (220 miles) above the Earth, so there is no time delay. Mars, on the other hand, is an average of 225 million km (140 million miles) away and a radio signal can take anything up to 22 minutes to travel to or from the Earth. Two-way conversations will be completely impossible, so email and social media communication is likely to become indispensible.
4) Keep yourself busy
Until recently, the flight to the ISS took almost three days in a cramped, spinning Russian Soyuz capsule. One European astronaut who has endured this experience (but who prefers to remain anonymous), says the worst thing is the boredom. After all the build-up to the mission and the excitement of launch, he was stuck in a tin can with nothing to do.
Participants in the Mars500 mission to Mars experienced a similar sensation. Although the 520-day voyage and simulated landing actually took place in a mock-up spacecraft in a Moscow suburb, the crew had plenty to keep them occupied. It was on the way back, with mission’s goal completed and fewer things to do, that boredom set in.
Antarctic explorers confined to their huts in the depths of the dark Antarctic winter have had to deal with the same problem. On Captain Scott’s 1910-1912 voyage, expedition members spent the winter fixing gear, playing games and music, and even publishing their own newspaper. Today, Antarctic personnel spend their spare time on hobbies, such as art, photography or music. Mid-winter rock gigs are common.
So, take up music and join the long list of musical firsts in space, load up your e-reader (and remember to pack the charger) or spend your spare time with a camera capturing the view.
5) Enjoy your own company
If you crave constant social interaction, then spaceflight is probably not for you. Anyone spending any significant time away from home learns to appreciate their own company and the privacy of their own personal space. Even on the relatively cramped ISS, there are places to be alone, from the tiny compartments astronauts get to call their own to unoccupied modules. For some people the problem might not be loneliness but too much company.
Al Worden has this advice: “You need to maintain a distance between people” he says. “If you get to a point in a flight where it’s time to take a rest, not do anything for a while, you need to be comfortable that you can enjoy the solitude without having to feel you have to talk to everybody.”
So what of Admiral Byrd in his Antarctic shack, buried beneath the snow? The chapter of his book dealing with early June is simply titled “despair”. When a relief party finally reached him on 11 August, he was in a poor state, weak and despondent. He described how, “in that miraculous instant, all the despair and suffering…fell away, and I felt as if I had just been born again.”
So if you have recently signed-up for a one-way trip to Mars, you might like to consider getting hold of a copy of Alone, Byrd’s personal account of how he coped in the long, dark silences of the Antarctic night. That and befriend fellow astronaut wannabes, practice chatting with robots, hone your social media skills, take up a new hobby and learn to enjoy your own company.