A daily bulletin of news & opinion

9 January 2013

As man has set his sights higher and looked deeper into the heavens in search of new challenges and discoveries, it has often been thought that the only limit on his accomplishments would be the pace of technological advance. I have always been rather more sceptical and maintained the opinion that some fundamental human failing will always keep mankind’s more excessive ambitions in check.

Not only that but in the current climate of austerity and economic pressure, I am rather uncomfortable with governments throwing money at space missions which can often be vanity projects rather than pragmatism. And so I was delighted to read a new piece of research this week appearing to prove that despite space-age technology, humans just can’t keep up.

The source of this revelation? A project that simulated a manned mission to Mars. The findings suggest that far from Martians, meteors and muscle wastage, it is simply monotony that is more likely to derail the next stage of space travel.

A select group of six intrepid souls drawn from the ranks of various international space agencies has recently returned from an “expedition” – aboard an ersatz spacecraft that was in fact a carefully constructed facility in Moscow. The Mars500 project was designed to mimic the trials and tribulations of a fully-fledged mission to the red planet, including the months of confinement without natural light, fresh air or any interaction with anyone other than their fellow crew members.

After the full 520-day trip, the subjects’ physical and mental deterioration became apparent. As did their worryingly fractured patterns of sleep.

Only one of the six guinea pigs was able to follow the textbook requirement of daytime activity, then rest by night, that contribute to a well-balanced and effective role on space missions. The others showed varying degrees of restlessness, lack of concentration and in one case – chronic sleep-deprivation. One hapless astronaut saw his entire sleep rhythm evolve from a 24-hour to a 25-hour cycle, meaning his “days” overlapped with those of his crewmates in a rather haphazard way: midnight at midday and vice versa. Not great if you have a spacewalk simulation coming up.

Psychologists who monitored the participants consequently sounded a cautionary note – suggesting that despite the promise of interplanetary excitement, lack of sleep and boredom present the greatest challenges. I think there is something deeply satisfying about this outcome.

Far from technology holding back our advances, it is man’s simple inability to rest (without the regular cues of night and day) that prove our undoing.

Maybe then, we should focus on some rather more pressing issues closer to home, rather than dropping billions on improbable Martian missions. That might help everyone – even intrepid astronauts – to sleep that little bit easier.

Tom Edwards is news editor for Monocle 24


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