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Mars One illustration
What are the psychological issues associated with missions that will go to Mars with no plans to return? (credit: Mars One/Bryan Versteeg)

Mars One, the “Third Quarter Effect”, and our human journey into deep space


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Anecdotal evidence of the individual and interpersonal problems that have occurred during long-duration Russian/Soviet missions, coupled with studies of personnel in other isolated, confined, and extreme environments (ICE), suggest that psychosocial elements of behavior and performance are likely to have a prominent impact on the outcome of long-duration space missions. This impact may range from individual decrements in performance, health, and well being, to the other extreme—catastrophic failure, as pointed out more than a decade ago by Lawrence Palinkas.

When the mission passes the midpoint, or shortly thereafter, the end of the mission suddenly takes on a much more tangible reality.

According to NASA psychologist Al Holland, past experience in space has demonstrated that the mental health of a crew can have a substantial impact on the overall success of a mission. On at least three occasions Russian missions had to be terminated due to psychological issues that developed among the cosmonauts. Although such extreme occurrences are rare, the mental and emotional well being of the crew (or the lack thereof) has almost certainly impacted mission outcomes to at least some degree.

The Third Quarter effect

In his book Spacefaring: The Human Dimension, Albert Harrison suggests that there are three stages that emerge over time during long-term missions, whether in space or under (or on) the sea. The first stage is characterized by excitement and anxiety, the second by boredom and depression, and the third by increased aggressiveness and emotional outbursts—something Harrison refers to as “third quarter phenomenon” since it seems to occur just past the mid-point in a mission. What is interesting is that these three stages seem to occur regardless of the total length of a given mission or rotation, be it three weeks, three months, or a year.

During the first part of the journey, crewmembers are excited about the new environment and the adventure that lay before them. This initial excitement can then give way to routine and feelings of boredom. During the first half of the mission, members cannot afford the luxury of thinking about the end because there is still too much of the mission in front of them to occupy their minds with anything other than the mission itself. The end point is simply too far away.

However, when the mission passes the midpoint, or shortly thereafter, the end of the mission suddenly takes on a much more tangible reality. When more mission time has passed than remains, the end point is no longer just an abstraction on the calendar but a very real, visceral experience because of its association with reunification with loved ones, being out of danger, re-immersion in the familiar, and a return to normalcy. Arising in tandem along with this anticipation is the fear that it may not come to pass. Longing and fear can create the tension that may be a large part of the third quarter effect.

The third quarter effect isn’t necessarily a negative experience. It may actually come and go without notice. My own experience aboard the Mars Analog Desert Research Station (MDRS) in 2002 is a good example. In my case, this effect was characterized by an increase in playfulness and humor among the entire crew. The primary reason it was such a positive experience is that the habitat rotations were not considered life threatening—not to an inordinate degree, anyway. Since the habitat is safely confined to the surface of Earth, no one was overly concerned that we might be killed before the end of our rotation. As such, all that remained was the weary satisfaction of a job nearly complete coupled with a much-anticipated return to wives and girlfriends. Thus, the dynamic tension between those two elements (longing and fear), which can be present to a large degree on an actual spaceflight, was not there in this case. The higher the risk of the mission, the greater the resulting tension and consequently, the more potentially negative its impact.

In addition, the power of humor cannot be underestimated. It plays a vital role in the stability and unity of the crew. Humor is always a strong indicator of optimism. When it goes south, so goes the mission. Being in touch with the ludicrousness of one’s predicament is vital and even revitalizing. But this is so only if the humor is all-inclusive and not at the expense of a fellow crewmember—e.g. throwing an M-80 under the commander’s bunk. No doubt that’s hilarious for some, but probably not for everybody.

One thing that sustains astronauts through the difficult periods on long-duration missions is the knowledge that they will eventually rejoin loved ones on Earth. Take that source of emotional support away and the resulting experience is probably not unlike how the condemned relate to the future.

Interestingly, the act of scapegoating can help reduce tension, so long as the scapegoated party is outside the primary group. This is why Mission Control ends up picking up the tab on a regular basis. It is easier and safer to dissipate tension towards a target on the outside. This dynamic is well known within the field of social psychology. The stability of any social system can help to be maintained—at least partially—by venting “systemic” frustration and fear onto a (relatively) harmless, external target. Mission Control plays many supportive roles. This is simply one more. However, on deep space missions that luxury will be seriously reduced or eliminated altogether due to the great distances involved and the relative autonomy of the crew.

Mars One

The Mars One mission, by contrast, has no third quarter. There are no quarters at all because there is no end to the mission. What would emerge in lieu of the third quarter effect is difficult to say.

One thing that sustains astronauts through the difficult periods on long-duration missions is the knowledge that they will eventually rejoin loved ones on Earth. This anticipation provides a great deal of psychological stability. Even so, there have been many episodes of depression, sleeplessness, distractibility, and anxiety on long-term missions. Take that source of emotional support away and the resulting experience is probably not unlike how the condemned relate to the future: something akin to a death sentence. My guess is that there are very few persons who could commit to such a venture.

The reason there are so many Mars One applicants at this point is that they can’t comprehend the undertaking in any realistic way because of the understandable excitement and enthusiasm that such a far-flung idea generates. Maintaining such enthusiasm when they cross the point of no return and watch the Earth recede into virtual nothingness will be a true test of fire—something that can’t be simulated on the ground or even in low Earth orbit. And they’ll have plenty of time to think about it. The crew will be without the usual psychological buffers that have been available to every other space flight crew thus far, such as relatively instant access to help from Mission Control, real-time interaction with family, and a mural-sized view of the Earth. For a very thoughtful review of Mars One, read Elmo Keep’s “All Dressed up for Mars and Nowhere to Go”.

Therefore, the crew must have the option of returning home. There must be a return capability if any trip to Mars is to be successful. The longing to someday return home will galvanize goal-directed behavior. It always has. Social connectedness is the fabric of our humanity. One-way trips to Mars will become feasible only when we have made a home of Mars. Until that happens a return option is vital for the optimal functioning of the crew. Try to imagine submariners on a mission that never ends. The prospect of a reunion with family and loved ones is a prime mover in survival situations. And any trip to Mars will have no shortage of threats to survival.

It is true that eliminating the return leg makes the mission simpler from a technical standpoint. But it handicaps the crew so severely in other fundamental ways that it may not be worth the tradeoff. The mission must include a return capability. The psychological freight of foregoing that part—the return—is so great that it can put the entire movement towards becoming a spacefaring species at great risk. There are three basic legs to a Mars mission: outbound, landing/habitation on the Martian surface, and return. If you must amputate a leg, make it the second, not the third.

There are three basic legs to a Mars mission: outbound, landing/habitation on the Martian surface, and return. If you must amputate a leg, make it the second, not the third.

That brings us to Dennis Tito’s “Inspiration Mars” concept, a human mission to fly past—but not land on—Mars, then return to Earth. If the level of excitement generated around Inspiration Mars is any indication, the project is aptly named. This is a far more feasible (and cheaper) mission than Mars One, as suggested by the fact that it drew far more serious attention from engineers and scientists in the space community than did Mars One. Inspiration Mars is a spectacularly great idea. It tests the outbound and return capability of the hardware (and human software) in a way that is similar to what Apollo 8 did in 1968.

To my friends involved with the Mars One project: Yours is truly a noble and courageous undertaking and it is to your great credit that you have committed yourselves to it. One of the truly positive aspects of Mars One is that it has gotten all of us to start raising and addressing the right questions. This, so that when we do take that bold step out into the great void, we’ll be ready.


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