If you ask the Canadian Space Agency, before any mission to Mars can take off, a crucial challenge needs to be solved for all astronauts that would embark on such a journey: their mental well-being.
Mental and physical health issues that astronauts face in deep-space exploration have inspired a new permanent exhibition at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. The exhibit is called Health in Space: Daring to Explore. The museum has collaborated with the Canadian Space Agency to shed light on the strain of spending time in space on the human body.
Former Canadian astronaut and medical doctor Robert Thirsk is the record holder for the longest space flight by a Canadian, where in 2009 he spent 187 days and 20 hours at the International Space Station.
“The nature of weightlessness, ionizing radiation and psychological isolation need to be better understood in order to make space flight safer for astronauts of the future,” Thirsk said. “(For) when we venture off to the moon, to Mars and beyond.”
Currently two months into his mission and living aboard the International Space Station is Astronaut David Saint-Jacques. In his words, mental health may be “the most important aspect of maintaining humans” in space.
“The problem you develop here is that everything is a little bit the same everyday,” said Saint-Jacques on a space-to-Earth video call. “It can be depressing sometimes, if you’re not careful.”
For an astronaut, the conditions can be extremely difficult. Thousands of miles away from family and friends on Earth, while being stuck with the same handful of people in very tight quarters, for months on end. There’s no escaping that in deep space.
During mission preparation, space agencies work with astronauts both physiologically and psychologically. Those that get to work in space are part of an exclusive club that were hand-selected for the job. They are trained to handle the many stresses that come with the job through countless simulations. The psychological training to help develop mental well being is critical for all space journeys, but especially a mission to Mars, which would take at least six months.
Despite his prior journeys that added up to over six months in space, Thirsk doesn’t think it was enough time.
“I miss the work that I did, I miss viewing our beautiful planet from the vantage point of total flight and, most of all, I miss my crew mates,” said Thirsk at the exhibition launch. “But six months of space flight took a toll on my body.”
Upon arrival back to Earth, Thirsk had lost muscle strength, his bones had begun to demineralize, and his eyesight was affected, despite daily exercise during his flight.
“Balance is not a problem in microgravity, but it is one when you come back to Earth,” said Saint-Jacques.
The goal for the exhibition is to better understand the duress that space travel has on the human body, both mentally and physically, and further research into these pain points. The ultimate goal, then, is to safely send astronauts of the future to Mars.