The Mars500 crew has now passed the halfway mark in their 105-day Mars mission simulation. ESA-selected crewmember Cyrille Fournier reflects on how the crew are getting on inside the isolation facility in Moscow.
Cyrille Fournier writes:
Imagine... Imagine a journey... Imagine you are running. The air is calm and warm around you; the nature seems quiet and is visibly ignoring your dedicated effort. But you are not paying attention to what surrounds you; you are just running, keeping in mind what you have been told and why you should do it.
The path ahead is rocky, unsteady and still long. You may on occasion think that you are going to fall, but you are convinced you will get back on your feet and resume running. What if you happen to cross a stream? You know you will adapt your pace, look for the easiest spot to cross and without any question, walk across and get back to your running.
The path goes uphill? You will make an extra effort, sweat more and pass it. For the time being, you feel capable and strong, but you know your forces will be likely to slowly wane as you get closer to your goal. Yet, you will reach it.
You will do so because you know it is important. You are convinced you are running not for yourself but for the others, for the ones you left behind and, above all, for helping the ones you will meet at the end of your journey. You know it will – at least a little bit - boost their moral and quieten down their worries.
While having all these thoughts bubbling in your mind, you realise that you have just passed the little village of Kifissia and you know this place is roughly halfway between your starting point and the arrival.
Imagine that you have made a journey in time. Indeed imagine you are in 490 BC and that you are the hoplite Pheidippides, running from Marathon to Athens in order to announce the Greek victory over the Persians...
Well, we absolutely do not want to compare our experiment to this precise and unique moment when history turned into legend… But we can still consider our simulated trip to Mars as a kind of marathon race. In this context, we passed by an important milestone during this week. Indeed, just like Pheidippides running by the village of Kifissia, during the night from 22 to 23 May, at 02:00 in the morning, we entered the second half of our isolation!
This is also a moment for a short reflexion that I would like to share with you, even though I am sure the team of psychologists who is supervising us is drawing much better and more consistent conclusions about what has happened so far – and it is not over yet!
According to what we all think here, we have managed this first part of our trip quite well. We have at times been surprised to observe how well we are getting along together. How we trust the five others. How we rely on them and on their competences to carry out specific experiments. Although we may see our isolation as a marathon in time, there are some differences between our trip and a race.
The main difference is that we are not just individuals running against time, we are a team and therefore we must act and react as a team throughout our 105-day mission. We need to give blood or go through a particular and precise medical exam? Our doctor Alexei [Baranov] knows everything at 200% and we all trust him when we stretch our arm, waiting for the syringe...
We hesitate whether we should physically train at full power today, risking maybe our spine to suffer beyond limits or one muscle to strain? Alexei [Shpakov], our exercise physiologist, gives us the exact advice and helps us to get in the proper position to perform our exercises...
One of the systems of our fully autonomous module is getting weak or a computer has failed? Oleg, our technical engineer and cosmonaut, is already working on it, all his tools around him, scrolling pages, disassembling the whole system. We know that in a couple of hours, everything will be working perfectly again.
An instruction concerning an experiment is unclear or the procedure is uncertain? The team knows that Oliver or I know it quite well and that we can adapt the method to the circumstances, thus getting the results we wanted.
An important decision needs to be taken? No question about it, whatever our Commander and cosmonaut Sergei decides, we know he has taken every detail into consideration, that his final word will be the good one and that we will stick to it.
But what underlies these reciprocal trusting relationships we have built? Well, I have to say that, as an individual, wherever you are, I believe you cannot make your close environment feel good if you are not yourself in a positive and good mood. In a confined situation, with limited space and under very special conditions such as no contact with the outer world, it is impossible to bear and accept that if one cannot adapt himself/herself quickly to a wide range of situations.
I think this ability to adapt is precisely one of our main qualities, for each of us, thus allowing every member of the crew to be in positive state of mind although the environment is way beyond what we are used to so far, in terms of difficulty and overall peculiarities. Consequently, as we do not feel any personal stress or tension, it is much easier for us to live together in a close community.
Alright, now that we are relaxed and calm, that this individual state is obtained and secured, we have a decent starting situation here. But it does not stop there! When enlarging our point of view from an individual to a group, we introduce another important – if not crucial – factor: communication.
Some say that 80% of the whole amount of information we communicate is non-verbal. It may be the tone of your voice, the look on your face, the body language, such as the gestures or postures you adopt, sighs, etc… We could also say that the way you communicate is even more important than the message you want to give. If this may not be completely true, it mostly depends on the type of cultural grounds you are considering, but someone who yells every time he/she talks would not be considered the same way as someone who can appreciate the context of the situation and adapt his/her language to it.
To come back to our situation, the fact that this is a multi-cultural crew with a major Russian component may have been tricky at the start, but after 55 days of isolation, it is quite clear that each of us is decrypting communication contexts very well, including the mood of the five others, and adapt himself to the others.
Our communication skills are probably one of the golden keys that can explain why we haven’t had any collective misunderstanding. Of course, this capacity is altered by some external disrupters such as the lack of sleep due to our once-every-six-day 24-hour shifts and the experiments that prevent us from sleeping normally. But that has not pushed us to be less considerate toward the five others and once again, as an average, I believe we have been doing very well on this issue.
Now that we have six calm individuals communicating fairly well, we are almost there but to my mind, one thing is still missing. It may be the cement that will make all the bricks stay together. Indeed, I would not imagine that our team spirit would be the same without, as I already mentioned, a complete trust in each other.
Generally speaking, a mutual trust may come from different origins but in our case, I do think it arises from the professional skills and competences we have demonstrated during both the training and the first half of the isolation. As I wrote, we all have fields in which we feel very at ease and we can see that the five others rely on the 'specialist' depending on what we have to do.
This is probably the final touch for me in trying to quickly explain the reasons why our first 52.5 days went well. Obviously, as we can read in financial brochures, the past performance does not presage the future one and I am still curious about what will happen before we exit...
Well, I talked far less about science today than the previous weeks. But because it is important for me that we have been halfway without any major or potential crisis or tension, I wanted to emphasise more particularly on this human factor that is essential in any collective enterprise. To some people, it may seems irrelevant or secondary, but I am convinced that it is much more difficult to succeed in this human-related task than in scientific studies even when figures, graphs and curves obtained through state-of-the-art experiments can suggest a complete breakthrough.
Because individual characters, personalities, human behaviour, social and cultural backgrounds are much more complex than numbers, it is difficult to embrace the infinite palettes of behaviours that one can adopt under particular – and sometimes even unknown – circumstances (and I am thinking here about a real mission to Mars).
There is consequently always a risk in trying to understand, consider and work with individuals and be sure that the chances someone changes drastically stays at a negligible level, or at least acceptable. But if so, the consequences can become seriously dramatic and more serious than the computed and often controlled risks of any technical failure.
Human factors must be considered to be the matrix in which can be cast scientific materials (in particular but not only) with a huge chance of success. I am convinced that without a consistent and/or resilient matrix, risks increase dramatically and possibly beyond limits. This is precisely why the Mars500 project has been launched, and I am sure the conclusions will be very valuable.
I leave now any more serious and deep analysis to our psychologists and managers but anyway, I wanted to share my opinion with you!
A word of congratulations
Finally, I cannot finish without a word for a new group. They are six and they are probably the happiest men and woman on this planet – and I even dare say in our entire Solar System! They are Samantha, Alexander, Andreas, Luca, Timothy and least but not last, my Air France buddy and mate Thomas. The six new European astronauts who were presented to the public on 20 May! Please allow me to post here a personal message: “BRAVO THOMAS!!! ECLATE-TOI A FOND MAINTENANT!!!” :-)
Anyway, we six here congratulate you six and we wish you all the best for what is to come ahead. The road will probably not be easy and you will have lots of work. But this will only increase the value of your future achievements, as we are sure you will succeed completely. And above all, we wish you lots of pleasure!!!
Eventually, do not forget that lots of people will have been working for you to enjoy the most fantastic journeys man can dream of. And this is precisely what we will be doing thoroughly for the seven weeks to come!