Ricardo, the guinea pig

With Winter going at full steam, everyday we are closer to no man’s land. There’s a plethora of reasons for no permanent human settlement 1being established here until a short time ago. Cold is without doubt the worst since we have to live with it the whole year, but once Winter sets in properly we also have to deal with constant darkness.

For us, young men and women from the 21st century, the night is nothing to worry about, it is actually the opposite. Artificial light is something so normal today that it hard to picture a time were lighting was ensured only by fireplaces and candles, with all the problems that arise from having an open flame indoors.

But fortunately some humans evolve and with today’s technology, there are even people that rather do their business at night. Us here don’t really have that option. Once May gets here and until mid August, the Sun goes away and, even though we still have a few usable twilight hours in the months after and before the Sun is gone to the holidays, in the middle of it you simply cannot see outside.

The constant night brings a series of physiological alterations that are interesting to science, if not, just to get ourselves ready for the technological jumps that humanity is getting ready to make.

I’m talking about sending humans to Mars specifically, something that I’m hoping to see before going senile.

Since the overwhelming majority of us never left the planet even, we don’t really have a notion of how big the distances between planets are. Yes, humanity already put men on the Moon back in 1969, but in this scale, a trip to the Moon is like visiting grandma that lives in the end of the street while going to Mars is more like cycling to Sydney to visit an estranged uncle.

Don’t get me wrong! Going to the Moon was a scientific prowess in so many levels. But that was 47 years ago. Its time to raise the bar a bit more.

A trip to Mars is obviously more complex than a trip to the Moon, but then we had almost 50 years worth of technological evolutions to get ourselves ready. One of the biggest technological challenges is going to be the travel time without doubt. Sending an astronaut to Mars is a very time consuming operation, unless we get some sort of amazing evolution in propulsion systems until there. With current technology only we expect a trip of at least 6 months, at least.

6 months locked in a series of modules, isolated from everyone apart from their crew members, each day with less sunlight hours than the one before? Sounds familiar…

That’s right, another thing that I’ve heard a lot around here was that spending a Winter in Antarctica is as close as we can get of space travelling without doing it obviously. The ingredients are all there. The few notable exceptions may be the gravity and the fact that we can go outside whenever the weather allows us to do so. The astronaut on the other hand…

There’s one thing that several people told me during Summer and my training days that illustrates perfectly the magnitude of an Antarctic Winter: “In Winter, its easier, faster and cheaper to evacuate an astronaut from the International Space Station than from an Antarctic Station”. Well, its not that hard to realise that. The ISS is only 400 kilometers away from the planet’s surface while we are twice as much afar from the closest humans than that. Also, gravity helps a lot (maybe a bit too much actually) when exiting the ISS while the few of us are trapped behind kilometers upon kilometers of sea ice.

Considering this, its not that strange that ESA and NASA have been “using” winterers during the last years to gather valuable data before burning millions of euros and dollars sending people into weird places. Halley, due to its location and maybe by the simple fact that the whole station really looks like a space station, has been fertile ground in this chapter.

In addition to the sleep studies that I’ve mentioned before (that also have all sorts of relevancy for space agencies since astronauts tend to sleep once in a while), during the last Winter I’ve been part (voluntarily, that is) of several experiments submitted by ESA with the intuit of understanding exactly how isolation and lack of constant sunlight might affect our performance.

The first one consisted in talking by myself to a video camera every week for 10 minutes, more or less. What did I discussed in those sessions? Whatever was going in my head at that time. In one of my last sessions I spent the whole 10 minutes discussing in detail a croissant recipe that I did in the previous weekend. Obviously the point of the exercise was not the context of the conversation itself. The videos were to be analysed so that our “verbal flexibility” could be measured throughout Winter. It seems that, with the absence of the Sun, our brains become slower since it is not resting as it should (I’m guessing at this point) and as such we start rolling out tongues a bit and become slower talkers as the Winter goes on, which actually kinda makes sense. I actually don’t have an idea since we only gathered that there. After recording a video in the computer, this one is encrypted and sent to the University in charge of this project. Somewhere in Europe there was a set of poor folk that was forced to listen to my crazy theories on how to conquer the planet or my weekend culinary adventures. I hope they got paid at least…
The second experiment was more interesting since it involved a Soyuz simulator, the Russian made module that has been used by ESA to send astronauts to the International Space Station. ESA is worried about the skill degradation of a pilot in long travels and it makes sense. Until now no astronaut has spent more than a week stuck in a space faring vehicle. It is a big jump if they are planning to fit a whole group of them is a 6 month travel to Mars. The big issue here is, after all that time, are they still able to land the instrument? It was to answer this question that us, pseudo-astronauts in the paper, manned a Soyuz simulator during Winter, with our bodies ridden with electrodes and wires so that the gentlemen at ESA understand what was going on properly.
The simulator was made ready during my first Summer and all of us winterers got the same training in order to get a group with all elements more or less at the same level. Then, when Winter started officially, we were split into 2 groups: frequent and non-frequent flyers, in order to use this experiment as much as possible. Non-frequent flyers run the simulator once every 3 months or so while frequent flyers did it every single month. The selection was made random by the University of Stuttgart, who’s heading this project. As a frequent flyer, I had to complete various versions of the same scenario every month: docking the Soyuz in one of ISS’s four entry ports. Sometimes were simple dockings were nothing extraordinary happened, other we had lost our automatic instrumentation and had to dock the thing “by eye” and some others we even had the Soyuz spinning uncontrollably during the process. All these scenarios are possible to happen in the real world and any astronaut is extensively trained in it, way more than us that’s for sure.  Curious enough, the mission that brought Tim Peake to the ISS in 2015 suffered a problem with Soyuz’s navigation system and the docking had to be done manually.
Life Science
Of course, if we send any humans to Mars, it wouldn’t be in a Soyuz certainly. This module was designed for short duration flights. Though our simulator is reasonable resembling the original gizmo, I doubt there are any claustrophobic astronauts. The real module is the size of a small bus, but we have to take into account that it is going to be packed with electronics, navigation and survival systems, etc… Besides the astronauts are equipped with their suits during the trip, which increases their volume considerably. In the end of the day, the poor fellas end up suffering for a few hours. Its not like the ISS has ample living space, but its is way more roomier than a Soyuz.
Whatever the model or color of the craft that is going to be used in the Mars trip, the core of it keeps: the astronauts are going to be isolated and in the “dark” for months until they reach the destination and have to use whatever they had learned in the space ship landing chapter.

The simulator session isn’t just this exercise. Besides parking the thing as it should, after that we still have a long battery of psychomotor and psychological tests to try and measure our state of mind and ability to maneuver heavy machinery.
All right, we’ve spend our Winter playing at the astronauts, but someone who understands science knows that all these data is irrelevant unless we keep a control group which whom one can compare the results with. Just like we need a referential to perform a valid measurement in Physics, Psychology needs a control group.

Ours was made of German students (probably) from the University of Stuttgart. Like any good old scientific and academic practice, for each one of us down here, there was a student doing the same thing as us, but under Stuttgard’s gray and cloudy sky instead of Halley’s cloudy and snowy sky.

And there’s more: in all Antarctica, there’s a station very similar to ours, in terms of latitude and general conditions. I’m talking about the french-italian station of Concordia. But the French and Italians in Concordia still have to deal with the effects of high altitude too since this station is located on top of the Antarctic plateau, over 3 kilometer above sea level. Choosing Halley and Concordia for this project was no coincidence. The effects of the altitude that are felt throughout Concordia but not at Halley makes it possible to isolate effects due to isolation, other due to lack of solar exposition, etc..

I’m not going to lie. In the beginning this was all very interesting because it was new and exciting. But after 9 months it becomes very repetitive and monotonous. But the notion that I’m actively contributing to a new phase in humanity’s space exploration largely rewards the forced depilatory action every time that I had to rip out the electrodes.


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