Can a Relationship Survive a Trip to Mars?

The psychological impact of long duration space travel

Posted Feb 28, 2013

Millionaire space tourist Dennis Tito wants to send a married couple to Mars (and back) by 2018. Engineering and physiological hurdles aside (and there are many of them), a mission to Mars poses significant challenges to a couple’s mental health as well as their relationship.

The Mission

Tito’s proposed mission would leave in January 2018 to take advantage of a rare alignment of Earth and Mars, perform a flyby (i.e., they would not land) and return to Earth 501 days later. Because he wants the first flight to Mars to be represented by both genders, he is looking for a married man and woman past childbearing years. Why a married couple? “Because,” explains Tito, “when you’re that far from home you’re going to need someone you can hug.” However, studies of long duration space travel indicate that after 17 months of social isolation, a hug might be the last thing members of the couple want to inflict on one another.

The Psychological Challenges of Long Duration Space Flight

Much research has been devoted to the many engineering and physiological challenges of space travel (e.g., the long term impacts of microgravity and exposure to radiation) however, the psychological hardships such travelers would face has been a relative afterthought. In the 1990s Norman Thagard spent 115 days on Mir, the Russian space station, where he suffered from loneliness and depression. Indeed, it is not infrequent for astronauts to experience, depression, lethargy, sleep disturbances, and problems with mental sharpness during long duration flights.

Mars500, an international experiment run by the Russian Academy of Science in conjunction with the European and Chinese space agencies in 2010 and 2011, kept 6 volunteers isolated in a simulated spaceship en route to Mars for 520 days. One report stated that four of the volunteers, “Showed at least one issue that could have exploded or led to a severe adverse effect during a Mars mission.”

Keep in mind that the conditions of the Mars500 volunteers was relatively luxurious compared to those the intrepid couple would likely face (given the shoestring budget Tito envisions). There is also a huge psychological difference between being in a simulated environment on Earth and being stuck in a capsule millions of miles away. The Apollo astronauts could see the Earth from the Moon, they could see its familiar blue oceans and white clouds. For a Mars bound couple, Earth would be no larger than a tiny dot.

The Impact of Loneliness and Human Isolation

Loneliness has a significant impact on both our mental and physiological health. Loneliness is associated with clinical depression, suicidal thoughts, hostility, sleep disturbances, and increased risks of dementia. Physiologically, loneliness has been shown to alter the function of our cardiovascular systems, our endocrine systems and even our immune systems.

Tito might think that sending a married couple would prevent loneliness but loneliness is an entirely subjective construct. Indeed, many married individuals identify as lonely despite living with a spouse.

As for the impact on the couple, consider how eager you might be to spend a romantic weekend retreat with your partner in a remote log cabin, with good wine, and a roaring fireplace. Now take away the cabin, the wine, and the fireplace, not to mention sunlight, gravity, fresh food, and a decent toilet, and image yourself marooned there for 17 months. By day 100 romance will be the last thing on your mind. Indeed, a couple on a trip to Mars would likely end up wanting to avoid each other as much as possible (which is not easy to do in a tiny space capsule).

Potential Solutions

One possibility that has shown promise in prairie voles (known for forming social bonds) is oxytocin, a hormone secreted by the pituitary gland. Oxytocin has been found to prevent several of the behavioral and physiological effects of isolation.

Another option is the prairie voles themselves. Animals have been found to mediate some of the detrimental impact of loneliness in people. Although such research has included mostly cats and dogs, it’s possible that including smaller animals (such as the voles) might help mitigate the impact of loneliness, isolation, and marital strife a space faring couple is bound to experience.

To learn how to treat the psychological wounds loneliness inflicts, check out my new book, Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Fear, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries.

Copyright 2013 Guy Winch

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