Martian diary: how to pick crewmembers

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E&T reporter Tereza Pultarova is taking part in a simulated Mars mission in a Mars analog station in Utah, the USA. The crew has been on site for more than a week and has already settled into the daily routine. However, it has not been all plain sailing. Here is Tereza’s latest update:

Going to Mars is not only about technical skills and scientific knowledge; the success or failure of any future mission would come down to psychological aspects – will the crew function as a team despite all the strains, discomforts and stresses, or will they start fighting? The importance of careful crew selection is probably the most important lesson learned by the Crew 135 so far.

The eight-month journey to the Red Planet will see the crew confined inside a tiny pressurised module with hardly any privacy. The situation after landing won’t be any better. The real Martian habitat, at least in early stages probably won’t offer more comfort that the simulated base in the San Rafael Swell area in Utah.

Less than ten metres in diameter, the two-storey metallic tuna-can requires the crew to live and work so closely together it might sometimes become uncomfortable. And remember – you can’t go outside to take a walk and clear your head if you feel overwhelmed – there is no breathable atmosphere out there and every extra-vehicular (out-of-the-hab) activity needs to be approved by the ground-based mission control centre and carefully coordinated and managed because of the limited amount of oxygen.

Despite the seemingly flawless progress during the first days of the Crew 135 mission at the Mars Desert Research Station, one crew-member found the pressure too much to cope with. It might have been the jet lag, it might have been the high work load or the limited privacy – or perhaps all of them. Although some of the crew members had noticed the affected person acted in a slightly agitated way, everyone was taken completely by surprise when the situation escalated. Suddenly, the crew member, after having spent an afternoon locked up in his tiny, 8 cubic metres bed room, packed all his stuff and left without telling anyone. On Mars, an action like this would equal suicide.

“I can’t understand what happened,” said Crew 135’s Commander Ondrej Doule, obviously still struggling to come to terms with the unexpected drama. “I know this person for many years, we have worked on several projects together and this person always came across as perfectly reliable and easy-going.”

Whereas real astronauts have to undergo elaborate psychological screening during the selection process, the simulated crews at the Mars Desert Research Station are mostly self-assembled. Some of the crew-members have not even met face to face before the mission start.

“This might only be a simulation, but many of the risks are real,” said the crew’s joker and health and safety officer Filip, unusually, with a serious expression on his face. “It’s still the health and lives of the crew that is at risk. We never know what is happening in someone else’s mind as we all perceive the world through our own experience.”

The incident forced the crew to halt the simulation for nearly two days. “It really disrupted the mission very much,” said the crew’s executive and green hab officer Lucie. “We are all very tired now and the mood of the crew definitely dropped as result of the situation.”

However, tough situations can only make you stronger. Despite continuing only as a crew of five, with an increased workload on every remaining crew member, the mission quickly got back on track.

At times, some crew members have been complaining the freeze-dried diet, though deliciously cooked by Elif, is messing up their stomachs, and that the yoga mats on the wooden bunk don’t allow a properly restful sleep. The noisy air-conditioning and an even noisier water pump don’t help either.

However,  all the pitfalls, are quickly forgotten when the crew-members don their spacesuits, jump on the quads and sets out to explore the environment. The sandy dunes are sparkling in all thinkable shades of red and orange in the strong desert sunlight. It truly looks like from a different world. And along the way, we have a lot of fun.

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