Can you imagine being stuck in a small box no larger than 1,500 square feet for a period of weeks? What about for over 500 days? That’s precisely what volunteers just got finished doing in a study that lasted over a year attempting to watch the movements and actions of six volunteers to see if the isolation would give them a phenomenon known among astronauts as cabin fever or “space madness.” The study was an attempt to get a deeper insight into the journey to Mars.
The simulation was essentially a long term project where the crew were given all the supplies necessary and began living in a mock spaceship. The ship was not large, and gave each of the volunteers little in the way of privacy or personal space. The hope of the study was that future rocket designers would be able to get some insight into the behaviors of those on board and find out what their needs would be on the long voyage to the Red Planet. But perhaps next time volunteers step from their space craft it will not be into a well lit auditorium, but rather onto the rocky sands of Mars itself.
The volunteers were from three from Russia, two from Europe, and one from South America. At the mid point of the voyage there was a brief period where the astronauts were let out and sent into a mockup of a Martian landscape. They then returned to their ship and took their “voyage” home. Each of the volunteers was compensated during their journey with messages and time-delayed video calls with their relatives. While they were unable to speak directly face to face, the experiment did allow for a 20 minute delayed series of messages. During a Mars mission messages to and from the craft would have to be received up to half an hour after they were sent, making a direct conversation difficult – and the isolation ever more present.
But the reports at the moment suggest that no one quit during the mission. Though the mission was long and the individuals on-board were in cramped isolation constantly, it was cheerful to note how little argument actually happened. Of course this is contrary to the image we have of individuals in cramped conditions for long periods of time. And despite being part of this long-term acting scenario there was no word of anyone “breaking character” and leaving the module except during the single walk on the simulated Martian surface. A string fastened in melted wax was placed on the door to indicate whether it had been opened prematurely. And despite generous odds of 8 to 1 suggesting the experiment would fail, it didn’t.
So does this space-borne form of cabin fever exist? Astronauts have for years complained of a form of social isolation that is felt both during and occasionally after space missions. But for the most part the jury is still out on whether cabin fever actually exists as a psychological disorder or is simply a social phenomenon.