Your pulse races as your stomach lurches, your
bloodstream floods with ‘fight-or-flight’ hormones,
and you get that sinking sense of the world demanding
much more from you than you can manage. It has been
called the epidemic of the modern world: no-one gets
away from stress.

Heading off the planet provides no escape. To venture
where few have gone before is exciting, but an
astronaut’s life can also be extraordinarily
stressful. Crews endure loneliness, sensory
deprivation, disorientating microgravity and the
anxiety of knowing the vacuum of space is kept from
them by an aluminium hull just a few millimetres

As future missions break out of low-earth orbit to
head for Mars, the stress will only increase. For
Earth will only be one point of light among many, and
astronauts will truly be on their own.

“Say you have some problem come up,” said ESA’s Daniel
Marcaillou. “Now you can fly
home in three hours. If you are on the Moon, you could
fly home in three days. If you are heading to Mars
then it means a round trip of two to three years, with
no early return possible.”

Daniel is the organiser of a weekend ESA conference in
Toulouse, France, on Stress in Extreme Environments –
how people live and work in novel, dangerous
surroundings. This also includes such environments as
deep sea diving, solo flying, and Antarctic

“Why have such a conference?” said Daniel. “ESA is
preparing to explore the solar system. For that we
must better understand humans – our nature and
behaviour. If we do, we can make the exploration of
Mars safer. And maybe we’ll make our own planet safer,

By cruel irony, the previous Friday saw Toulouse
rocked by a devastating chemical factory explosion,
and scientific interest in extreme situations became
suddenly, tragically immediate.

“We will talk about the explosion,” Daniel said. “It
was very traumatic for everyone here. I recall what I
was thinking before, what I was thinking during the
explosion, and what I thought afterwards. If enough
people do the same, we may gain insights into how we
behave in such scenarios.”

On Friday 28 September the conference will cover the
experience of stress. The following morning the focus
is on minimising it.

Researchers from CNES, the French Marines, NASDA, the
Antarctic French Territories and ESA/ESTEC are among more
than 200 people taking part. Costeau Society
‘aquanaut’ Claude Wesly will speak about life in an
undersea habitat while ESA astronaut Jean-FranÁois
Clervoy introduces film of his 1999 Hubble Space
Telescope rescue mission.

Also present is psychologist Vadim Gushin, of the
Moscow-based Institute for Biomedical Problems. The
Institute has studied the psychology of space crews
for 30 years, and recently built an International
Space Station simulator.

While European television viewers enjoyed the ‘reality
TV’ show Big Brother, a connected pair of modules in a
Moscow hangar were its scientific equivalent. For
eight months up to eight Russian and international
volunteers at a time called their combined 300 cubic
metre volume home.

The modules were designed to be a close match to ISS
conditions: they had the noise, the workload –
everything but microgravity. And sure enough, they had
stress too. Tensions arose between participants and
one walked out – not a simple real life option.

This experiment reveals that cultural differences can
multiply onboard stress, unless adequately prepared
for. That goes double for a Mars mission. Participants
will observe the Red Planet through a telescope on
Saturday. The psychological challenges of both
interplanetary distance and human difference during
such a journey will be discussed that afternoon.