Moon mission simulation explores how isolation affects astronauts’ wellbeing

By Matthew Warren

The next decade promises to be an exciting one for space travel. With the Artemis missions, NASA plans to send a crewed mission to the moon in a few years’ time, and will eventually establish a base camp at the lunar South Pole for longer expeditions. Meanwhile, Elon Musk claims that SpaceX will send a crew to Mars in 2029.

But any long-term space mission will face numerous challenges — not just technical, but also psychological. Astronauts will have to spend weeks or months in small confines with just a few fellow crew members, isolated from the rest of humanity. So it will be important to predict how this experience might affect astronauts’ mental health — and whether there are particular activities that could protect against any negative effects.

This was one of the aims of the LUNARK project, the results of which were published recently in Acta Astronautica. Two men in their 20s spent 61 days living in a specially constructed habitat in Northern Greenland, designed to mimic the conditions astronauts would experience in a base on the moon. The participants had to cope with outside temperatures as low as -30°c and a month of complete darkness, and had no contact with the outside world other than sending short daily messages back home.

Each day, the participants had tasks to complete such as conducting experiments or gathering ice for water, but also had downtime to relax or socialise together. And at the end of most days, they filled in questionnaires about how they were feeling. These asked about negative emotions they might have experienced, how much they desired social contact, how lonely they felt, whether they felt time was passing faster or slower than normal, and the extent to which they experienced “resignation” (this includes feelings of detachment and helplessness).  The two “astronauts” also reported on the time spent performing various kinds of activities that day, such as chatting, sleeping, eating, writing, and watching TV shows.

It was the results of these surveys that Paolo Riva from the University of Milano-Bicocca and team were interested in. In their new paper, the researchers report that both participants displayed an increased desire for social contact as the mission progressed, though they didn’t show any increase in negative emotions or feelings of resignation. Past work has found that isolation and ostracism can lead to the experience of resignation, but the team suggests that this didn’t occur on the mission because the participants had willingly put themselves into this position. However, the team did find that feelings of resignation on one day were associated with feelings of resignation the next, suggesting these feelings can have a lingering effect — which could make them harder to counter when they do occur.

Certain activities seemed to mitigate negative emotional experiences. More time spent talking to the other participant about personal matters or taking part in leisure activities was related to reduced feelings of resignation. Leisure activities also made it feel like time was running faster. Talking about personal matters and exercising both also fostered a desire for social contact (a need which could be challenging to fulfil in extreme isolation, but which is presumably better than social withdrawal).   

The researchers conclude astronauts might not experience the same negative consequences as those who are in prison, say, or who have been socially excluded. That’s because they willingly sign up for space missions, and have a clear end date for their expeditions. But there is still clearly the potential for negative psychological effects, and their study suggests some ways to counteract these. In particular, physical exercise, leisure activities, and chatting with each other about matters unrelated to the mission all seem to promote wellbeing.

It’s interesting that the two participants had quite different emotional experiences: one generally reported more negative feelings than the other, for example, and felt that time was going slower than normal while the other felt it was going faster. This gets to a key limitation of the study: this is ultimately an experiment with a sample size of just two people, which really limits the generalisability of the findings. It’s also worth pointing out that the participants had known each other for a long time (in fact, they were co-founders of the company that made the habitat), so their experience might not be reflected in pairs or groups of people with different social dynamics.

Still, it’s a fascinating set-up for a psychology study — and until we get the chance to study astronauts on the moon, this is the perhaps next best thing.

Social isolation in space: An investigation of LUNARK, the first human mission in an Arctic Moon analog habitat

Matthew Warren (@MattBWarren) is Editor of BPS Research Digest