'Mars' mission is ultimate reality show | Leo Hickman

If I was on the panel choosing the crew for this simulated flight, I'd focus my attention on the 'social habits' of each candidate

In May, six people will climb into a steel container in Moscow and the door will be locked tight. For the next 18 months, the "crew" will live inside this windowless environment – four interlocked modules measuring, in total, 550 cubic metres – as they attempt to simulate the conditions onboard a spacecraft on a round-trip to Mars.

It sounds like the ultimate TV reality show: six different personalities forced to get along while their omnipotent masters outside issue them with a daily set of tasks and instructions. The experiment is one of the most fascinating and demanding psychological tests you could ever dream up. But, if we are ever to get to Mars, these are exactly the sort of conditions that a crew will have to suffer and survive.

Ignore for one moment the dangers of solar radiation and the constant threat of a terminal malfunction in the spaceship's hardware: just imagine putting up with the annoying traits and tics of five other people for that period of time. It would be like the student flatshare from hell. And throw into that volatile brew the simulated sense of distance from Earth – once they "reach" Mars, the time delay for communicating with the outside world will be set at 20 minutes.

Last year, following the successful completion of similar, but much shorter, 105-day experiment, I spoke to Dr Kevin Fong, a lecturer in space medicine and the co-director of the Centre for Altitude, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine at University College London. He said the "physiological and psychological stresses" placed on the crew would outweigh the technical challenges of a mission to Mars.

"They need to be fully autonomous and self-reliant," he says. "They will have to deal with close confinement, lack of privacy, constant threat to life and increasing disconnection with Earth."

Getting the right blend of crew will be crucial, he adds: "Should it be, say, six GI Joe Identikits, or should we send a Star Trek-type rainbow of nationalities and genders? Who would get on better? Crew diversity might be a good thing, or it might be bad. We just don't know yet. History shows us that on long-range expeditions, where group psychology is a key component, things can go wrong. Look at Ferdinand Magellan. His crew mutinied, as did Captain Bligh's."

I find this last point fascinating as it potentially says so much about us down here on the ground and not just those chosen few who will, at some point in the future, head off to Mars. Our instincts might wish it to be true that a "Star Trek-type rainbow" crew would be the best blend. But, following the completion of these experiments in Russia, we might discover that the most harmonious crew would, in fact, be "six GI Joe Identikits".

The crew going inside the modules in May will be made up of people from Russia (three members), China (one member) and two Europeans yet to be chosen from a list that includes a Belgian, two Frenchmen, an Italian and a Colombian-Italian. Will this blend get along? Who knows, but it would have been interesting to see how, say, an American, might have fitted into the mix. Also, the experimental crew last year was made up of six men, but it doesn't seem as if women are being automatically excluded judging by the criteria set down by the European Space Agency, which is overseeing the experiment:

Candidates should be aged 20–50, motivated, in good health and no taller than 185cm. They should speak one of the working languages: English and Russian. Candidates must have a background and work experience in medicine, biology, life support systems engineering, computer engineering, electronic engineering or mechanical engineering. Selection will be based on education, professional experience, medical fitness and social habits.

Forget the working Russian and electronic engineering skills for a moment: if I was on the judging panel, I'd be focusing most of my attention on the "social habits" of each candidate. We've all seen enough sci-fi films based on the premise of long-distance trips through deep space to know that an irritating, unstable crew member can threaten the very survival of the spacecraft. The last thing a crew would need would be a habitual conversation interrupter or a proud flatulator. Perhaps a bland, homogenised crew, with the same gender, ethnicity, nationality, class, education etc is the way forward? It would certainly make things easier when it comes to choosing which DVD box sets to take along to help kill the time.


Leo Hickman

The GuardianTramp

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