Science Journal

Photo: CTK

The most exciting story of the month: Czech psychologists help set the stage for one of the greatest journeys of the mind imaginable. The scene is a parking lot in Moscow, where six scientists have been locked away in a mock spaceship for a 520-day-long mission to Mars.

Welcome to Science Journal for June, 2010, and to outer space, and the adventures of the Czech Republic therein. Czech news abounds in science stories every month, but it is not so often that the final frontier makes the front page, and what I am most excited about is the Mars 500 project, and the six would-be cosmonauts that have been padlocked into a five-room module in a Moscow parking lot, where they will spend the next year and a half on a make-believe mission to Mars. There are no Czechs on the crew, but it was Czechs who conceived on the psychoanalytical method with which the interpersonal relations on the “ship” will be studied and fostered. Can they hack it? That is after all, the purpose of the experiment – to see what will happen to them – how best can man survive his longest journey into space, to another planet. The day before the historic experiment I was joined in the studio by Mr Tomáš Srb, a senior consultant at QED Group, the Czech company facilitating the research. He told me about the key word in the project – socio-mapping.

“Socio-mapping is an analytical method used mainly for analysis of social systems, liek small groups or bigger groups, like organisations. And the main idea is that we convert complex information about relations between the members of the group, or team, for example into a comprehensive and understandable graphic model, which is called a sociomap. And this is also what we do in the Mars 500 experiment – using socio-mapping, we analyse the relationships between the crewmembers. So we analyse and monitor their relations.”

So to give a practical example, in the English department of Radio Prague there are seven of us. If we knew we were going to be working from a desert island for the next few years, what kind of advice could we expect to get from you.

“So what I would offer you is that we can monitor your relations while you are isolated on the island, and we can give you feedback on how your relations are developing. That means giving you feedback before something happens. So we try to monitor the cohesiveness of the group – what forces hold you together – and tell you if there is some risk of a misunderstanding or conflict will happen.”

So during the trip, not beforehand.

Photo: CTK
“Well we can measure it before, and compare it with the state, for example, after one month, and the next month and so on. And so we do this regularly, every 14 days we collect data about what is going on in the group and we create an analysis, and provide feedback to the people in mission control centre, the psychological support team and the crew members as well.”

I imagine it as a kind of computer game, but I guess it’s not like that for you at all, is it?

“Well we treat people like human beings, so it’s not exactly a computer game [laughs]. But, you know, the method itself is very visual. You can look at the website for example, where we have some examples, and you will see that it is easy to understand, it’s very visual. So, yeah, sometimes it can look like a computer game. We also use a metaphor of landscape, so you can enter the landscape of the team using our software and walk through that landscape. So, well, sometimes it looks like a computer game.”

That’s fascinating. In any case, it’s very much like science fiction, imagining the situation of sending a team of people all the way to Mars and assumedly back to Earth, considering what kinds of personality characteristics would best sit together and what kinds of problems they could possibly face on the trip.

“Yeah. Well, it still is a little bit science fiction, that’s why this experiment is being done, because we need to know much more about how people behave in these situations. This is the longest isolation experiment that has been done so far, and we still don’t know what will happen during these 520 days. And regarding personalities, there was a really serious selection of people for this experiment. So there were thousands of applicants for the experiment, and from these applicants there were ten candidates, and now we have six people. So it was a very serious selection process.”

Photo: CTK
People were really enthusiastic about the idea of being locked in a box for 520 days.

“Yeah, yeah, surprisingly they were.”

It’s not at all the first time people have been cooped up together for a long period of time, people on long voyages by sea, on submarines... How does a hypothetical space journey differ from a real journey in a submarine, for example?

“Well, I think at least in how isolated you are. Because in a submarine you can, you know, go up, or return to the harbour. But in a spaceship you really depend on the people. They depend on each other. In fact communication is much more difficult, because the further the spaceship is there greater the delay in communication. It will be like 20 minutes. When they get close to Mars they will send a message to Earth and get the reply after 40 minutes because of the delay. And it’s different because you cannot get off. And that can be very stressful for the people, because they could make just a small mistake and they could easily die. Especially when it comes to landing on Mars – which will be part of the journey.”

Are there any circumstances under which one of the crew would leave? Or under which the experiment would be halted and everyone would be taken out?

Tomáš Srb
“Well, as far as I know, if there is a risk that someone could potentially die or something like that then he can be taken off. But then the experiment would fail.”

If, or when, there is a mission to mars, can you imagine that you and your company would be involved in it?

“Yes, I can imagine it. And in fact, we also have the International Space Station, so in cooperation with the same institute we are planning to apply for some real studies in space. So, potentially yes. This is for us a test of a system that could work for the crew of a real spaceship.”

That was Tomáš Srb from the psychoanalytical team of QED, who I’m certain we will hear much more from in the future and not just 20 years from now. But no discussion about Czechs and space could be complete without inviting Dr. Jan Kolář to the table, the head of the Czech Space Office. Now, the work of that institution has been mentioned many a time now on Radio Prague, but I wouldn’t like to give the idea that it is where Czech astronauts are sent to space on Czech spaceships. And since I couldn’t have Dr. Kolář at the table, I tracked him down in Brussels to give us some solid background.

“Yes of course, firstly, the Czech Republic doesn’t have any ambitious space programme. We have space activities, but all of them are organisaed at the moment through the European Space Agency. And the Czech Space Office is here to help communicate and serve as an information contact point for everybody from the Czech side who would like to get to the European Space Programme, and vice-versa: to distribute information about the possibilities in Europe that exist for Czech companies and institutions.

Photo: CTK
We’ve been talking today about the Mars 500 project – that’s great news that there is Czech participation in that – when can we next expect Czechs to play some role in space news.

“At the moment the Czech Republic is involved in some of the European programmes. One that was recently launched was the two experiments on the ionospheric satellite launched by the European Space Agency called PROBA. And in the near future what is in preparation is the development of a so-called micro-accelerometer, which is a special device measuring very subtle changes in the gravitational force on the satellite in orbit. This is a special instrument that will be on board the satellite Swarm, which is planned for launch in 2012. Another possibility is that the Czech Republic is very much looking to be a partner in the next generation of solar orbiting satellites, called solar orbiters, whereby the Czech Republic is trying to put three experiments involving the study of solar activities.”

One last question: I have an article from last week here in front of me, the headline is: “the government would like to take the first steps towards the creation of a Czech Space Agency”. What would that entail?

Jan Kolář
“This is an activity that should somehow stress and foresee better organisation than exists at the moment in the Czech Republic. At the moment, the Czech Republic has a structure whereby the Ministry of Education is mainly responsible for communicating with ESA and for paying the Czech contribution to ESA. The vision is that other sectors should also be involved and play a more active role in space activities, and we foresee the creation of a national agency, or something like it, that would stress the involvement of the state institutions, and one possibility is the one you have mentioned. But this is a proposal, and it will be up to our government to decide.”

Dr. Jan Kolář Czech Space Office, maybe soon to be the National Space Agency, and that’s all that space and time allow for today, but we’ll be with you again with more science news and information in roughly 27 days, 23 hours and 45 minutes, until which time I bid you farewell.