Event: 3rd December 2012, London, England

Once a year, since the inception of the Space Medicine and Extreme Environment Physiology course, some 12 years ago at University College London (UCL), Dr Kass has delivered a two-hour workshop on Psychological Issues Encountered in Long-Duration Human Space Flight to students of the university.

This optional course, organized by Dr Kevin Fong, has been quite popular over the years, attracting a variety of students from the Faculty of Life Sciences at UCL. The workshop held this year proved to be particularly interesting because the Mars-One project, where humans will be sent on a one-way mission to Mars, was discussed, especially from the psycho-social aspects.

This course series has been run under the leadership of Dr Kevin Fong of the UCL Medical School, who is also director at the Centre for Altitude Space and Extreme Environment Medicine (CASE Medicine).

In the first instance this course concerns the problems encountered in long-duration spaceflight, analyzing the various stressors suffered by the crew, some being unique to the space environment, such as weightlessness, others related to the constraints of the habitat, but probably most important, those psychosocial stressors faced when a small group is isolated together in a small space, and being very interdependent on each other for survival. A group thus isolated whose members also are or become incompatible with each other can suffer dire consequences, to the individuals concerned, and to the group as a whole. Taking preventive and prophylactic steps in advance, and early recognition of the tell-tale signals, is a big step towards dealing with undesirable consequences, which not only reduce efficiency of work, but are the cause of increased errors and can eventually jeopardize the safety of the crew and the mission.

There are, however, some basic underlying issues that are common to groups and their dynamics whether or not they are isolated in space; however, the effects are exacerbated and the consequences magnified during long-duration spaceflight, as opposed to analogous behavioural circumstances on Earth. It may also be noted that many of the problems encountered in other analogous extreme environments, be it climbing a dangerous mountain or engaging in a winter arctic expedition, display similar challenges and require similar countermeasures as are necessary during a long flight into outer space.

For this particular lecture, Dr Kass introduced for the first time the challenge of going on a one-way trip to Mars, to establish a first human settlement on another planet. This scenario is exactly the basis for the Mars-One project, for which Dr Kass is an advisor. Raising this potential and not simply hypothetical challenge provoked much lively discussion, especially as one student announced that he was an enthusiastic candidate to fly on the first one-way mission to Mars! Some challenging questions such as the necessary and desirable characteristics of a potential Mars traveller were discussed as well as some practical issues such as procreation or taking one’s partner along.

Part of the lecture tackled generic issues encountered in groups wherever they may be, such as understanding good leadership and wise handling of conflict situations. Thus this lecture, although built around the extreme environment of long-duration spaceflight, can help each individual in the normal day-to-day problems and challenges of dealing with others – because during most of our working and private lives we are almost always also dealing with the dynamics of group behaviour, whose understanding can help us in our every-day lives.