Exploration is an intrinsic part of human nature. I grew up inspired by stories of history's greatest explorers: how Captain Cook embarked on a journey fearing his crew would sail off the edge of a flat world; Scott’s Antarctic team who willingly signed up to an expedition despite the doubtful safe return; and Sir Edmund Hillary climbing Everest simply because ‘it was there’. As humans it is natural to want to reach out and explore our surroundings, to try to achieve a better understanding of the world we live in.

Over time, I have had the chance to explore remote areas of our planet. On one trip, I found a map in a grocery store in an Inuit village, and the top left hand corner of the map was completely blank, aside from the word ‘unexplored’. This word sums up what’s so exciting about exploration and about scientific research in general – heading into the unknown, with the chance to discover something new. Today, the blank area we still have to fill in is space: it’s the next frontier of exploration and the one place we truly have left to explore.

The global exploration roadmap collaboratively developed by the major space agencies outlines a shift in focus from low Earth orbit, where the International Space Station is currently orbiting, towards exploratory long duration missions. There has never been a more exciting time to be involved in the space industry. With the development of a lunar village on the horizon, it has been suggested that we could see a settlement on Mars within this decade and, while this timescale is perhaps optimistic, I believe that I will see humans set foot on Mars within my lifetime.

But exploration isn’t about reaching a destination to place a flag; it’s about the journey and the boundaries we have to push through on the way. When considering our current capacity for space travel, perhaps the most obvious limitation is our technological capabilities – ‘the rocket science’. However, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that it may in fact be our own human capacity for such missions that will pose the biggest challenge of all. Deep space missions will require astronauts to be exposed to isolated, extreme and confined environments for prolonged periods of time. The current Mars Reference Mission has a duration estimated at around 1,000 days, while other deeper space missions are likely to be considerably longer. Mission success will depend on the physical and psychological resilience of crews that undertake these journeys.

There’s an increasing focus on developing our understanding of potential human challenges in order to prepare us for such deep space missions. Astronauts Kelly and Korniyenko spent 342 days in space – far longer than the standard 6 month rotation – which presented an opportunity to consider the long term effects of spaceflight on human physiology, psychology and behavioural adaptations. But there’s a lot we can do back here on Earth to further our knowledge in these areas, through the use of ground-based ‘spaceflight analogue’ platforms which replicate elements of being in space. We can take advantage of the neutral buoyancy of underwater platforms to simulate microgravity, use bed rest studies to examine muscle and bone wasting, and venture into deep cave systems to learn more about the likely challenges of surface planetary exploration.

I spent a winter at Concordia Station as a research medic for a European Space Agency study, where 105 days without sunlight, temperatures as low as -800C, and complete isolation even during emergencies provide a close analogue for the conditions people will encounter during long duration space missions. The key stressors at Concordia include a monotonous social and physical environment, confinement, physical and emotional deprivation, and limited privacy.

The studies we undertook at Concordia were designed to build understanding of what we can do to prepare people before long duration space missions and the kinds of environmental and psychological interventions that may be needed during the missions. We took monthly cognition tests in order to develop a screening tool to monitor astronauts’ personal performance. Any dip in performance would provide a red flag for mission control to investigate the causes, which could be anything from insufficient rest, poor quality sleep, or emotional problems. We had functional MRI scans immediately before and after our mission, and again 6 months afterwards, to identify any structural changes to our brains.

Wearable activity monitors and proximity data gave us insights into activity levels, sleep-wake cycles, use of personal and social spaces, and crew cohesion. Understanding these patterns enables us to examine whether there are particular time points in a mission where crew members are more likely to isolate themselves or where conflicts are likely to occur – and if so, what countermeasures could be used at these points? Something as simple as giving the crew a team task can be extremely effective in increasing harmony and avoiding conflicts. Data from our video diaries has already been used to develop software that can read non-verbal cues, to monitor the emotional status of crew members during video calls.

The cumulative findings of this research and studies at similar platforms shows a wide variation in crew members’ psychological resilience and ability to adapt to adverse conditions. Some individuals experience what’s come to be known as ‘winter-over syndrome’, where they’re vulnerable to physical and mental health illness. Others report personal growth and improvements in health, after experiencing a feeling of accomplishment from successfully adapting to their new environment. For some people, an increase in resilience seems to come from entering a flattened emotional state, with a ‘drifting’ of attention and less mental engagement – like a kind of ‘psychological hibernation’. But this adaptation may be at the cost of cognitive performance, so we need to continue exploring whether stress-reducing techniques like yoga, meditation and self hypnosis could facilitate psychological hibernation, without dampening cognitive skills.

Psychological hibernation has been noted as most pronounced during the third quarter of a mission – a time period widely accepted as one of the more challenging periods for crew members. This ‘third quarter phenomenon’ is typically characterised by reduced psychological resilience, low mood and psychological change, increased crew tension, reduced motivation and implementation of an adapting coping mechanism.

For me personally, one of the strangest sensations during my winter at Concordia was losing the sun – that familiar feature that you can see wherever you travel in the world. Being without it for so long really felt like being on another planet. When it reappeared at the horizon for a few short minutes after 105 days of darkness, I felt deeply energised and reconnected with life back home. My time in Antarctica offered a fresh perspective on our world and the direction of my life – and astronauts report the same feeling, with the feeling of detachment from Earth leading to what’s become known as the ‘overview effect’. It’s been suggested that if world leaders made political decisions from space, the altered perspective of our world could lead to significantly different outcomes.

The human need for a connection with nature also came to the fore during my time at Concordia. When I first arrived I found that one crew member was keeping a slug as a pet – with the slug having arrived on a lettuce leaf on the first plane into the base. While this initially struck me as strange behaviour, later on I came to understand why it was nice to have the slug around, and enjoyed the next arrival of lettuces and slugs. Projects like EDEN ISS are now exploring innovative hydroponic farming techniques in the hope of being able to create self-sustaining habitats aboard future space exploration vehicles and on planetary outposts.

Over the coming decades, ongoing research from analogue platforms will greatly increase our preparedness for long duration space missions, so that when the technology that will actually get us into space and enable us to stay there for extended lengths of time arrives, we’ll be able to give crew members and future settlers the best possible chance of a successful mission. Space exploration is already changing the face of the world we live in today. And I’m certain that instead of over-wintering in the Antarctic, in time scientists will be over-mooning on a lunar village research platform.

Dr Beth Healey

Dr Beth Healey practises emergency medicine and spent a year in Antarctica at Concordia Station as a Research MD, exploring the effects of physical and psychological isolation on a group of people for the European Space Agency.

Using the Antarctic as a spaceflight simulator

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