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A Mars simulation crew spent 520 days in confinement. Here are their tips

If you’re struggling in quarantine right now, you might look for advice from someone how has survived a truly extreme confinement situation, such as an astronaut who was part of the European Space Agency (ESA)’s Mars500 simulation study.

Simulation missions are psychological experiments to learn about how humans fare in the space environment, without actually sending anyone to space. Especially for missions to Mars, which will require long travel times, a crew will have to work together in difficult circumstances for over a year, with little chance to get away from each other or from their tasks.

The Mars500 simulation mission, which began in 2007, was one of the best-known and longest-running simulation studies, including three different crews of volunteers. It culminated with a 520-day mission featuring a crew of six men from Russia, France, Italy, and China. They spent their time in a simulated spacecraft and had to get by without sunlight, fresh food, or fresh air. So they learned a thing or two about working in isolation, as did the scientists studying them.

The crew of the Mars500 simulation mission
The crew of the Mars500 simulation mission ESA

It is one of these crew members, French engineer Romain Charles, who appears in ESA’s video with tips on surviving confinement. He gave nine tips for staying sane in difficult environments:

  1. Remember that the situation is temporary. Things that you want to do right now but can’t, you may well be able to do later.
  2. Stay busy. It’s easy to get bored and lethargic in confinement, so keep yourself busy with reading, music, and other hobbies. Charles did things like improving his Russian with his Russian crewmates, and getting his Chinese crewmate to teach him calligraphy.
  3. Live in the present. Taking one day at a time feels more manageable than thinking about the long term confinement.
  4. Keep a regular cycle of day and night. Humans respond very well to regular sleep cycles, and very poorly to interrupted cycles. Try to wake up and go to bed at the same time every day.
  5. Be creative. Break the monotony by trying new things and having fun. Charles has delightful photos of the many different and increasingly ridiculous styles of beard he tried during his confinement.
  6. Stay in touch. You’ll feel much better if you have regular contact with family and friends.
  7. Spend energy. You need to burn off all that excess energy through exercise and activity.
  8. Communicate. When you’re in an enclosed space with others, it’s easy to let tensions boil over. Communicate about your needs.
  9. Look for unexpected rewards. Charles describes the absolute joy he experienced when he ate fresh food for the first time after confinement. Things that he had taken for granted became incredibly precious to him.

Charles isn’t the only astronaut to have shared advice on this topic. Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield also shared his tips recently.

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