Earlier this month, six people began their tenure in an immersive experiment that is either your biggest dream or your worst nightmare: They live in a simulated alien colony while being monitored by its builders. It is part of Project Sirius, an eight-month off-world settlement test taking place in Moscow.
In light of the fierce interest in colonizing other planets – especially from SpaceX CEO Elon Musk – the scientists behind these experiments are learning what physical and psychological consequences may await future settlers from March or the moon. And although 2021’s Sirius simulation just started on November 4, there is already a good deal of data to work with from tests in 2017 and 2019.
Among those analyzing the details, a team of researchers has noticed two striking results: Members of the “extraterrestrial society” became more and more autonomous, and they gradually less often communicated their feelings with mission control. The researchers published their findings Nov. 9 in the journal Frontiers in Physiology.
At face value, strong independence seems promising in a potential Mars community. If settlers perceive full control over their mission, they would function confidently and work together, drawing on their comfort with each other. It could benefit later interplanetary efforts by easing individual anxiety and improving group cohesion to perform protocols.
That was one of the surprising results of the study. “The communication skills of crew members with different personalities, genders and cultures became more similar during the mission,” said co-author Dmitry Shved of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Moscow Aviation Institute.
But on a deeper level, it invites some challenges to let go of mission control.
“The downside is that mission control loses the ability to understand the needs and problems of the crew, which in turn hampers mission control’s ability to provide support,” Shved said.
Taking it a step (or five) further if the crew achieves a super high level of autonomy and cohesion, there is another potential concern, according to Shved – they may seek complete detachment from external management structures. Basically, Mars humans could revolt from the Earthlings.
But do not worry, at least not too much. “During the period when the Mars colonies will still be dependent on supplies and people coming from Earth,” he said, “the likelihood of severing diplomatic relations seems rather low.”
Ground control for Major Tom
Project Sirius is all-inclusive. Each simulation gave participants a full nine yards of “colonization” of space to unlock precise details of external group dynamics.
First, subjects underwent a realistic takeoff and landing – the rock and all. Then they were immediately isolated in chambers from the outside world. The brave souls also did not get an abundance of supplies, were asked to use greenhouses on board and even experienced signal delays while talking on mission control.
After the respective 17-day and 120-day periods of the 2017 and 2019 experiments, Shved’s team began to observe how the communication between the experimental crews and mission control developed over time.
“Crews in simulated missions tended to reduce their communication with mission control during isolation,” Shved said, “sharing their needs and problems less and less – with rare exceptions such as important mission events, such as landing simulation.”
On the other hand, during the mission there was a convergence of communication styles among Project Sirius crew members and an increase in crew cohesion, although the crew composition was diverse according to gender and cultural background, with pronounced individual differences, according to Shved.
In terms of gender, the team’s study indicated that those who identified as women responded differently to stress than those who identified as men based on speech acoustic indicators, facial expressions, and content analysis of their messages. Unlike men, women manifested both joy and sadness in the face and exhibited stress less audibly in speech, Shved said.
These data coincide with stress management gender differences for space colonization in data obtained by Sheryl Bishop of California’s Space Surgery Institute, according to Shved. Her work was derived from the results of a study involving a four-month Mars space simulation known as FMARS, located deep in the Canadian Arctic.
“But,” he said, “it should be noted that all female subjects in Sirius experiments were Russian, while males were Russian, German, and American – so the cultural background could influence the differences observed.”
The researchers intend to continue to study communication behaviors of crew members on the Sirius-21 experiment. And for both private and public bodies wishing to embark on extraterrestrial colonization, Shved urges that the main points revealed by his team’s analysis should ideally be discussed before the mission, and he stressed the importance of a good talk with “the home”.
“Given the technical means of communication, video messages from the crew, colonists and back seem to be preferable,” he said, “as it provides better emotional connection, even during the signal delay and delay effect.”