ESA: Help Wanted

Help Wanted: Healthy, psychologically stable, "highly motivated" European individuals, age 25-50, under 185 cm in height, with nothing on their calendars for 17 months. Need a working knowledge of both English and Russian. Pays 120 euros ($158) per day. On-site room and board. No smokers or drug/alcohol dependent need apply. Inquire with European Space Agency.

That's the gist of the BBC article I read about the ESA's planned experiment in Moscow, where a crew of six volunteers will undergo complete isolation while they simulate a round trip to Mars over about 17 months. Nobody will be coming in or going out, barring a life-threatening emergency. The only communications outside of the crew's small isolation complex will be via a radio link with a simulated delay to equal the amount of time that a radio signal would take to get from their "ship" to Earth and back. The experiment won't have weightlessness or the dangers of interplanetary radiation, but other than that, they plan to make it as realistic as possible, in order to determine the psychological effects of a long period of isolation on a small group of people. So far, they have about 250 applications, only 19 of which are from women.

The first question would be, do you want a same-sex, assumedly heterosexual crew that would be celibate for almost a year and half, or do you want a sexually balanced crew of three men and three women and the assumption that there likely would be heterosexual activity taking place?

Any workplace that has a mix of the sexes almost inevitably will have some sexual activity occurring, even in workplaces where the people go home at the end of the day. The case of the NASA love triangle involving former astronaut Lisa Nowak is a perfect example of this. And in the case of this experiment, nobody will be leaving at the end of the day; they're going to be stuck with each other for 17 months, with all that entails if romantic relationships go awry but the ex is constantly present. Best bet: Three stable married couples.

Another possible complication: What if there are women in the crew and one of them becomes pregnant? At that point, she's going to have to come out for medical treatment, and the whole experiment is compromised.

Finally, the biggest problem I see with an experiment like this is that the volunteers will know that it isn't real, but only a simulation. And while the volunteers may be "highly motivated," it can't match the motivation that the first real Mars mission crew will feel, knowing that they will be the first people to go to another planet. I might be willing to give up 17 months of my life to really go to Mars, but not just to live in a cramped simulated space environment in Russia, no matter what they were paying me. That's 17 months that the volunteers will never get back, time when they will be away from home and hearth, family and friends.

And I wonder how difficult it will be to find non-smokers in Europe, especially that are proficient in Russian? Last I heard, a goodly proportion of the European population smokes, even more in eastern Europe. And of course, they also love their vodka in that part of the world. Add in the needed skills to simulate a space mission crew (including most definitely at least one doctor), and the ESA will have their work cut out for them in filling out their crew roster.