• Exploring the void

    • Illustration by Yuta Onoda
    • John Huston and Tyler Fish camped on the Arctic ice cap during their 770-kilometre trek.
    Date:1 November 2010 Tags:

    Polar treks can teach Nasa what to look for in Mars astronauts.

    On a stark morning last April at latitude 88 degrees north, John Huston and Tyler Fish were crossing the Arctic ice cap in a bid to become the first confirmed Americans to ski unsupported to the North Pole. The two men, both in their mid-30s, wore backpacks and harnesses attached to sleds laden with hundreds of kilograms of gear. At 10 am, the ice opened beneath Huston’s skis, and he plunged from light into the darkness of the near-freezing water below.

    Huston and Fish may as well have been on the Moon. Rescue was thousands of kilometres away, days distant. The Arctic environment – minus 23 degrees, snow swirling across a white void – was inhospitably numbing. Even unearthly.

    In fact, desolate polar regions have long been seen as analogous to outer space. From Siberia, where Soviet cosmonauts braved teeth-cracking cold, to the Canadian Arctic, where Nasa still funds field research for Mars exploration, the remote reaches of Earth offer a parallel to what it might be like to endure the alien environment of a moon or planet far away.

    “Imagine two or more people leaving the safety of a space habitat and going on to the Mars surface,” says Gloria Leon, who studies the polar–space analogy at the University of Minnesota. “That environment will be similar in many ways to what polar explorers face on Earth.”

    The comparison is not just physical; polar settings affect humans on a psychological level. After months alone on the ice, individuals often experience changes in their behaviour, attitudes and values, says Leon, who co-founded the university’s Laboratory for Health and Human Performance in Extreme Environments in 1996. Since 1986 she has been studying expeditions, including Huston and Fish’s, to learn which qualities are held by explorers who perform well in isolation.

    “It takes a certain type of person to be able to stay effective on a polar expedition,” Leon says. Using this information, she hopes to one day help Nasa form a more compatible, psychologically sound space crew for missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond.

    Last April, when Huston plunged through the ice, Fish had to act in seconds before hypothermia incapacitated his partner.

    He knelt – “I remember my knees getting wet and the ice tearing underneath me,” he says – and hauled the gasping man on to the ice. Huston stripped down and dried off in a tent, and 2 hours later, the pair stepped back into their skis and continued north.

    Isolation risks .
    On the ground floor of a University of Minnesota medical building, Leon and the extreme-environment lab’s director, Victor Koscheyev – a physiologist who formerly worked on projects with the Soviet space programme – lead studies on topics ranging from hypothermia and expedition-induced stress to heat tolerance. But as a psychologist, Leon focuses on the cognitive and behavioural challenges that polar explorers uniquely experience.

    Her research – applied over the years to a who’s who of polar explorers, including Will Steger, Ann Bancroft and Richard Weber – is based on surveys from tent-bound adventurers and structured psychological interviews before and after the expeditions. Each week on Huston and Fish’s journey, which was officially called the Victorinox North Pole ’09 Expedition, the two men answered questions about such topics as stress levels, mood, comfort, camaraderie, sleep, appetite and perceived physical exertion. Leon also monitored their progress online at the expedition’s blog.

    Her research indicates that drudgery – not physical peril – can weigh most heavily on polar explorers. Plodding for days across a stark white landscape is a lesson in dealing with monotony. “You enter into a different realm of existence on the ice,” says Huston, who trekked across Antarctica and Greenland on previous trips. “You get claustrophobic because you know you can’t leave.”

    The effects of isolation on performance are of great interest to Nasa, which estimates that astronauts face a flight to Mars lasting up to six months, followed by an 18-month stay on the Red Planet. In the agency’s Bioastronautics Roadmap, a 168- page document on risk-reduction strategies for space exploration, isolation is ranked alongside extraneous radiation, muscle damage and bone loss.

    For space and polar explorers, the mental expedition can be just as challenging. “They are individuals, they are isolated, communication will have a time delay,” says Robert Trevino, an aerospace technologist specialising in extra-vehicular-activity systems at Johnson Space Centre. “On the psychological side, there are a lot of similarities.”

    In the zone
    Leon’s research points to the unique formula required to thrive in an extreme environment. Many successful polar explorers, for example, reveal a strong “absorption characteristic”, which is the ability, Leon says, to become so engaged in what you are doing that you do not get overwhelmed by the greater task at hand.

    In 2001, explorers Liv Arnesen and Ann Bancroft skied and kite-sailed across Antarctica on a 2 763-kilometre journey. Leon notes that, for Bancroft, becoming absorbed in the scenery was an important mental diversion during the 94-day trip. “Ann talked about slogging along but being drawn by the way the light would hit the ice or the view of multicolour glaciers,” Leon says. “It showed how a person knows the reality of where she is, but can become so engrossed with thoughts and sensory perception that they take over.”

    Nasa’s Bioastronautics Roadmap also cites psychological issues such as interpersonal distrust, misunderstanding, poor communication and lack of group cohesiveness as factors that pose grave risks to future missions. But Leon has observed that taking care of each other – physically and emotionally – can improve not only individual, but also group welfare.

    During an all-female expedition in the early 1990s, for example, she interviewed skiers who divided haul loads to take strain off a member who was slowed by a stressed leg. Co-operation on minor hurdles, Leon says, helps teams reach larger goals. Key leadership qualities have also come to light through explorers’ diaries: namely, a leader who takes a highly structured approach at the beginning, but who, over the course of an expedition, levels his or her authority to allow for a more democratic approach. Ernest Shackleton, Leon notes, used this technique.

    Huston and Fish demonstrated one final trait she has observed: the ability to “accept a setback, plan ahead based on the experience and continue on”. After more than 770 kilometres, the men stood on the North Pole on April 25, 2009. They ate a meal of leftovers and drank scotch to celebrate their achievement. A few hours later, they boarded a Russian helicopter that hurtled south, carrying them back to Earth.

    Related material
    * Video: Watch the video of Huston and Fish talking about their inspiring race against time to the North Pole.

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