Why a Bunch of Scientists Are Beginning a Fake Space Voyage in Antarctica

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The British Antarctic Survey research station at Halley, in Antartica.
The British Antarctic Survey research station at Halley, in Antartica. Photo: Robert Weight/Corbis

Down in Antarctica, a crew of scientists and their support staff are going to spend the next nine months living as though they're in space. Four of those months, they'll be entirely in the dark and unconnected with the outside world while passing their days at at the U.K.'s Halley Research Station. The goal: to find out how well they remember certain skills, like how to dock a simulated Soyuz spacecraft at a simulated International Space Station.

Exploring or living in Earth's most extreme places can offer a close analogue to how astronauts will react to long journeys through space in the future. It can be particularly useful for highlighting human limits.

"Humans are capable of enduring almost everything if they are to be pioneers in that endeavor," says Jack Stuster, whose book, Bold Endeavors, plumbed everything from European explorations to polar expeditions to find lessons for future astronauts. "But that's not to say that there aren't many examples of psychological problems." 

Of course, the dangers are more pronounced on longer journeys. "It's like driving a car," Stuster says. "The more you drive, the greater the risk you're going to get into a crash." He estimates based on Antarctica data that one person out six will develop a serious psychological problem during a three-year expedition to Mars. "They'll probably get over it, but it would be something that on Earth that would require hospitalization," he says.

In Antarctica, the crew will record video diaries that will be run through analytic programs: Any changes in words or pitch could indicate a change in psychological state. A few years ago, Stuster did a similar study for NASA, in which he had astronauts on ISS keep personal journals about their experience over months in space. The stresses of life in space, to some extent, aren't that different from life on Earth — the astronauts wrote about work, their communications with friends and family, their relationship with their bosses, sleep, and food. They were happier when there were more crew members around, and they could share around the most tedious tasks. 

Stuster did find that, about three quarters of the way through their tours of duty, astronauts' morale tended to dip. It's a minor dip, but it does come up in most of the journals he's analyzed. But overall, the astronauts found life in space less challenging than they had expected. Turns out, daily life — even in the most of futuristic of places — can feel pretty familiar.