Imagine that one day you are in the habitat and get up in the morning in a windowless pie-slice shaped room. You walk downstairs ready to start your Martian morning and say hello to a crewmember walking in the opposite direction. They seem upset with you for a reason you’re not aware of and they look away without a response. It stings, but you compartmentalize it. After all, there’s a day’s work ahead. Perhaps you even convince myself they simply didn’t hear.
You turn the corner towards the kitchen to find two crewmates having a conversation. They smile politely, but walk away immediately in order to continue a private conversation that you inadvertently walked in on.
You pour yourself a cup of coffee as you cycle through the day’s to-do list in your mind.
“Let’s see…there’s some cleaning, some emails to send, and Ah!- my experiment! I need to run that today”, you think to yourself.
Prioritizing your tasks, you head towards the lab. You pass one more crewmember typing furiously away at their computer. “Good morning”, you say. Their focus goes unbroken and they don’t notice the words.
Never mind the miles of dust and rock, or the lack of Social Media.
That is isolation.
Perhaps isolation can be measured by the amount you feel that you’re back in junior high school. Remember junior high? It’s that time period in people’s lives that older folks sometimes say, “That was the best time of my life” and “Life was simpler then”. Only one problem – absolutely none of that should be true for any healthy participant of the human species.
Isolation is related to distance – not to cities and stores, nor to cell towers and wireless reception. It’s related to the perception of distance between ourselves and others. I believe that to be in true whether you’re on a space mission or not. After all, it’s a defining role in relationships. “Were you close to them?” is even a common question after someone passes away. Why? Because social distance coincides with emotional impact.
I’ve said it before that I’m lucky to have a great crew that cares for one another. This mission has even held some of the warmest moments I’ve experienced.
However, being in this scenario does make me ponder on just how important those interpersonal relationships are on a long-duration mission. Balancing a proper social distance with every crew member is vital to the health of your crew which, ultimately, is needed to ensure mission success.
In some ways this isn’t that much different than with any friend / coworker. The largest difference here is that in the few situations where distance is needed, creating its physical form isn’t an option. The tool that’s left, then, and the temptation can be to create emotional distance. In a harsh environment such as space, that can be detrimental.
HI-SEAS is a psychological study, not a technical-based one. This is why we don’t require high-fidelity suits, just ones that keep us sheltered from sensory input.
The value of this study is quite clear once you realize that these social dynamics have just as much to do with mission success as many technical issues do.
And remember: If junior high was the best time of your life, you’re doing something wrong.