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8Jan 2013

Lots of Ink for a sleepy, cranky mission to nowhere near Mars

Lots of Ink for a sleepy, cranky mission to nowhere near Mars

 One suspects that within the lifetimes of most everybody under age 45 or  so, a human being will orbit and perhaps set foot on Mars. My money is on private voyages for the restless, brave, and  hyper-wealthy who might remain on our roasting planet 20 years or so from now and want to visit somewhere that's really cold. But, as measured by the behavior of news people paid to guess the public's interest in things, the very idea of such a trip strikes a deep and broadly shared chord.

   The latest example is the broad covereage given to reports from a recent simulated Mars mission. The six 'crew' members, all men, spent 17 months confined in an interlocked barracks in Moscow, built in tubular fashion to evoke the shape that best holds pressurized air. Their two-way communications were subject to long delays, due to the transmission time lapse from real Earth to real Mars. They had to throw their trash out via space-lock type ports. They only went outside once, during a brief so-called landing period. They had to wear bulky spacesuits on the stage-set version of the red sands of Mars. They had full-time comforts of gravity but otherwise, space city. Look at the photo up top - the rug is a giveaway this is no NASA or Planetary Society venture. It looks right out of a herder's tent on the Kazakh steppe. And the carpentry is way too good to be a US gov't job.

    The project's various efforts have gotten publicity before (see Tracker post from March, 2009). . Now it's back, with publication of a study by US researchers of the sleep habits that the men on this one run developed. This scientific report from the Univ. of Pennsylvania and the Baylor College of Medicine is a rare link between the project and the US. Results are in the current Proceedings of the Nat'l Academy of Sciences.

   What interests me is how much attention this is getting even though the bottom-line result is no big surprise. It is that sleep was a problem - too much of it - and the men became listless and inattentive. One of them went totally out of synch with the 24-hour schedule on board, his circadian system losing its rhythm. There is not much fresh human interest anecdotes in these accounts. That's why I think somebody really will go there. If a fake and stale mission gets this much ink, imagine what a real one might generate.

    Stories:

  • LA Times - Rosie Mestel: Future visitors to Mars: Will sleep be your biggest worry? ; Excellent selection of detail and explanation of results. But interest must be carried along by the reader's innate curiosity, not any particular drama in the tale.
  • Philadelphia Inquirer - Tom Avril: Simulated 520-day Mars trip yeilds data for researchers ; Avril has an advantage of an extra angle - some of the authors of the paper live right in town. He also asks part of the right question : how does this differ from life on a submarine, essentially? The answer he gets is that it is a lot like it. But we don't learn why this test is likely to have better results than the Navy gets routinely. Avril does a professional job generally with lots of references to other studies and on the general state of the world's space programs and the extent human expeditions to Mars are taken seriously. A hat tip to Tom too for bringing this news to our attention.
  • AP - Seth Borenstein: Mock Mars trek finds down-to-Earth sleep woes ; Borenstein gives the subjects' behavior a smooth review, noting at one point they went into a profound funk. His riff on their lethargy has everything in it but the 100-mile stare, which I thought of after realizing how much the behavior changes remind one of reports from Amundsen-Scott Station in Antarctica where south pole residents spend nearly the whole winter cooped up in a space like a spaceship. Outside the environment is alien. Borenstein handles this test's results fine - but one wishes some reporter had called an old Arctic hand physiologist and human factors researcher to see if the Moscow test reveals anything new.
  • USA Today - Dan Vergano: Mission to Mars looks sleepy in study ; He sets aside an entire paragraph for this telling result: "The crewmember who exercised the most during the simulated space trip slept the best."
  • Wired - Adam Mann: Future Mars Astronauts May Be sleepy, Bored and Crabby ; Mann does make brief mention of similar studies from Antarctica. As for boredom, he explains that well: "There were only so many times they could play Guitar Hero."
  • Independent (UK) Steve Connor: The main problems for a manned Mars mission? Sleep deprivation. ; Good enough but the hed misleads. It was not sleep deprivation that was typical. Sleep increased. But a general "behavioral torpor" worsened the quality of wake time.
  • New Scientist - Andy Coghlan: Mock Mars mission reveals salty surprise ; Good for Coghlan. He reports on the US sleep study, but leads with another study from the mission,by at least one UK author, that revealed wide discrepancies in how the volunteers cycled salt through their metabolisms.
  • AAAS ScienceNow - Sean Treacy: Mars Mission Could Turn Astronauts Into Couch Potatoes ; Good job, but in an unrelated note that jerked my attention aside, reading it brought the eyeball to a little item on the same page - my old editor at USNews and for a Mars story for Nat'l Geographic, Tim Appenzeller, is moving to Science as its news editor. He's recently done pretty much the same job at Nature. Congratulations Tim, you are always coming up aces. Also, kudos to retiring Colin Norman.
  • Space.com - Charles Q. Choi: Mock Mars Flight Reveals Big Sleep Concerns for Astronauts ; Careful explanation here of the wide spread in sleep-related shifts the subjects experienced.
  • Popular Science - Rebecca Boyle: Mars500 Crew Became Lazy and Sleepy DuringMoscow-Based Fake Space Mission ;
  • Could go on...

Grist for the Mill: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press Release ; Mars500 website ; Check this virtual tour. Don't miss the great looking spacesuit.

 

  

   

   

  

Comments

Methinks you doth protest too much. "What interests me is how much attention this is getting even though the bottom-line result is no big surprise."

It's getting attention because it's space travel, and space travel is cool and fun and exciting. The results are not surprising to those of us who report on science and health - especially sleep - but it may be surprising to average Joe who otherwise doesn't really pay attention to health news at all. I actually think, in one sense, this is a rather clever way (if unintentional) to draw attention to how significant sleep and circadian rhythms are for us humans.

Consider: Joe Sixpack may never visit HealthDay or WebMD to find out that, yea, your sleeping patterns really DO matter. But a trip to Mars? Awesome! (And then they realize the impact of irregular sleep cycles.) I didn't see this mentioned in your coverage, but when I wrote about this study for dailyRx.com, I specifically noted a single sentence buried at the end of the study. It was an obvious "this is relevant to ordinary folks because" throwaway line, but it fits in with what I'm saying: "Past research has shown that sleep restriction can arise from the disruption of natural circadian rhythms due to alarm clocks, work schedules, TV programming times, school start times and daylight saving time changes."

It was buried at the end of my story, but if anyone reads that far, perhaps they'll think about that.

not in media here but enjoy reading this site -comment - I wonder why no-one mentioned 'cabin fever' as recognizable syndrome of long confinement?

whoops forgot to identify myself in that post about why we should or should not go.  Tom Avril, Philadelphia Inquirer

Good roundup, Charlie. Had we had more room, I would have liked to address the issue that you have brought up in past posts: why go? Why not send, oh, I dunno... a robotic rover? Which seems to have worked pretty well for us so far.

Charlie, you missed the most incredible of the titles:
"Trip To Mars Will Turn Astronauts Into Lazy Bros"

http://www.gizmodo.com.au/2013/01/trip-to-mars-will-turn-astronauts-into...

^ You simply cannot beat that.

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