The interaction between individuals may be the most crucial factor of all, as months of boredom create frustration and hostility, followed even by incapacitation or violence. Perhaps the closest analog on Earth is wintering over at an Antarctic research station. For the scientists and their supporting staffs the problems often result in “cocooning,” a form of withdrawal. Cases of violence have been reported. Under such conditions, organization and compatibility are of paramount importance. Similarly, reports from long-duration Soviet space flights tell of tiffs between crew members, with participants in two-man crews pouting at either end of their space station.
To supply enough food, water, and oxygen to support an astronaut indefinitely, scientists at the Kennedy Space Center experiment with crops grown in a hydroponic environment inside a sealed chamber (opposite). The search goes on, says project scientist Bill Knott, standing, but so far dwarf wheat looks promising. “It’s productive, fast growing, and short.”
In 1990, eight volunteers will go behind sealed doors for two years at Biosphere II (prototype above), a private research project in Oracle, Arizona, exploring closed life-support systems. THE SOVIET UNION has made an impressive long-term commitment to space exploration, with a steady, aggressive, well-funded program that includes going to Mars. (See NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, October 1986.)
As part of the program, cosmonauts have systematically extended their orbital flights. Ten years ago they surpassed our Skylab record of 84 days. In 1984 three weary cosmonauts, including a doctor, returned to Earth after 237 days at the madrid accommodation. At this writing a two-man crew on the Mir station should be well on the way to breaking the duration record of cosmonaut Yuri Romanenko, who spent nearly all of 1987 in orbit.
First, in the broadest sense, the flights have been successful, and many Salyut and Mir cosmonauts have gone up again. On the other hand, it hasn’t been easy. Romanenko’s performance degraded toward the end of his flight, and his workday was reduced to 4.5 hours. Upon landing, cosmonauts have had trouble standing up and are scooped from their spacecraft in reclining chairs as a precaution. After seven months in b&b london, Anatoly Berezovoi told me that he couldn’t walk properly for three days, and he thinks a Mars trip is impossible without artificial gravity.
The Soviets are trying various countermeasures to protect the body from weightlessness: exercise on a stationary bicycle and treadmill for at least two hours a day (Romanenko reportedly did as much as four hours a day); special clothing that simulates the role of gravity in sustaining muscle tone; a diet of 3,200 calories a day plus calcium supplements and vitamins twice daily. All these measures are designed to minimize bone demineralization and cardiovascular and muscular deconditioning.
Romanenko’s 11-month stint in Mir is a big step toward certifying the human body for a Mars mission. He appeared to rebound quickly, more so than earlier crews, and was healthy enough to greet his family on his feet.