NASA explains why it's worried about the mental health of astronauts going to Mars

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One of the main challenges with sending people to Mars is, well, it takes a very long time to get to Mars. Last year, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said he'd like to cut the projected mission length in half, from eight to four months. It takes three days to get to the International Space Station, ditto the moon.

As it stands now, a full Mars mission is expected to take 30 months.

In order to predict how astronauts will react to such extended space missions (even a four-month trip to Mars requires a four-month trip back) NASA is undertaking a number of experiments to see how the human body–and mind–will cope away from Earth for so long.


In a recently published video, NASA explained these studies as "-omics." Per NASA:

“Omics” refers to the collection of data on the medley of microcosms that regulate our bodies at a molecular level. Things that work with the metabolism are grouped underneath the term “metabolome.” All of the lipids in the body are called the “lipidome.” All of the proteins? You guessed it—“proteome.”

NASA's Craig Kundrot explained in a statement, “We have launched a one-year study to understand the omics of space travel… astronauts are spending a year on the International Space Station, and we are looking at what happens to them on the molecular level."

This research includes NASA's twin study, which tracks ISS astronaut's Scott Kelly's health and development, and compares it to that of his Earth-bound twin, Mark Kelly (a retired astronaut himself). That experiment is separated from the one-year mission, which tracks astronauts' moods and physical adjustments over a year in space.


This one-year mission will also allow NASA to predict how astronauts will cope with potentially missing major life events on Earth. "NASA knows a lot about what happens to astronauts after 6 months in orbit,” Kundrot said, adding, "When we leave home for 6 months, it’s like a long business trip. Leaving home for a year is a different thing. We are going to miss every birthday, anniversary, graduation and many other milestones.  It feels like a big chunk of life—and this could affect the mood or behavior of the space travelers.”

Kelly left Earth for the ISS in March of 2014, so he's already two-thirds of the way done with the experiment. As part of the mental health experiment, he's been journaling. NASA explained the project last month:

While on orbit, astronauts write in their personal journals at least three times per week. Journals can be either typed on a laptop or recorded as an audio file. Journaling provides an outlet for emotions, [behavioral scientist Jack] Stuster said. They are a personal record of events and data that can be used to derive recommendations for future missions… Each statement in the journal entry is assigned to a primary category based on the subject of the statement; secondary and third-level categories also can be assigned, depending on the content. Then the statement is assigned a code to indicate whether the tone is positive, negative or neutral. From this, a metric is derived by subtracting the proportion of negative entries from the proportion of positive entries.


Kelly just broke the record for most time spent in space by an American last month, so his journal should be interesting.

Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.

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