Boredom could be the biggest threat to a mission to Mars

In space, there is nobody to hear you yawn

(Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell)

Even if NASA scientists can work out the physics and engineering problems associated with a manned mission to Mars, they will still have another serious obstacle to overcome: Boredom.

Unlike in Star Trek: The Next Generation, astronauts won't be able to kill time in the holodeck. Instead, they'll be crammed into a tiny spacecraft for eight months as they traverse space, which would be like being trapped in the world's most expensive jail cell.

Then, if they aren't killed during the landing, they will be stuck on a barren planet that has plenty of violent storms but not much in the way of recreation options. Even with the excitement of exploring a new world, boredom could pose a very real risk to any potential Mars mission.

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"If your brain does not receive sufficient stimulus, it might find something else to do — it daydreams, it wanders, it thinks about itself," writes Maggie Koerth-Baker at The New York Times. "Chronic boredom correlates with depression and attention deficits."

Depressed astronauts who can't focus could have trouble following basic safety procedures or driving a vehicle around Mars' rocky surface. Not only that, but people who have nothing to do will subconsciously take more risks to alleviate their boredom, Koerth-Baker writes.

Earlier this year, Wired took a look at the Mars500 experiment, a joint project by Russian, European, and Chinese space agencies designed to see how astronauts would fare during extended space travel. Six people were stuck in a simulated spaceship for 520 consecutive days.

During that time, the crew slept far more than usual, mostly because they didn't have anything else to do. One crew member adopted a 25-hour day, which was a problem because crew cohesion suffers when sleep cycles are out of sync. Another test subject reported feeling depressed.

"Four of them showed at least one issue that could have exploded or led to a severe adverse effect during a Mars mission," the study concluded.

So how can NASA keep astronauts on a Mars mission stimulated?

The answer, oddly enough, might not actually come from space. While the International Space Station (ISS) would seem like the best proxy for an extended Mars mission, the astronauts living there are constantly in contact with Earth, and their schedules are jam-packed with work for the four to five months that they are up there.

Living on Mars, however, will probably be more like living on Antarctica. Communication with Earth will be more limited than at the ISS, the stay will be longer, and the view often a monochromatic haze of dust.

On bases in Antarctica, residents cure the boredom with a lively office culture, celebrating "a ridiculous number of holidays, both traditional and invented," according to Koerth-Baker. Talent shows aren't uncommon, as demonstrated in Warner Herzog's 2007 documentary on the U.S. Antarctic Program, Encounters at the End of the World.

It's a tradition that scientists in the Antarctic have been carrying on for awhile, from the time of Ernest Shackleton, who nearly reached the South Pole in 1909, to modern times.

"At McMurdo Station, the 1983 winter crew created costumes, learned lines and acted out scenes from the movie Escape From New York," writes Koerth-Baker. "It’s possible that we may, someday, watch recordings of Mars-bound astronauts acting out other John Carpenter films."

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