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Science/Medicine : Cooped Up : Scientists are growing concerned that the confinement, monotony and prolonged close contact in space can diminish productivity and even lead to psychotic behavior endangering others.

September 28, 1987|THOMAS H. MAUGH II | Times Science Writer

Midway through an 84-day Skylab mission in 1974, the three resident astronauts shocked ground controllers by deciding to take a Sunday off from scheduled work.

Their unexpected rebellion led to what crew leader Gerald Carr called "the first space sensitivity session" with ground controllers.

In December, 1982, Soviet cosmonauts Anatoli Berezevoi and Valentin Lebedev risked a hazardous night landing during a snowstorm rather than extend their 211-day mission another week. In a rare display of candor, Soviet authorities said the landing was prompted by the cosmonauts' growing irritability and inability to get along.

Those incidents, and others, worry NASA planners as they contemplate 120- to 180-day stays in this country's proposed space station during the 1990s and a three-year, round trip to Mars early in the next century.

Psychologists are growing more concerned that the confinement, monotony and prolonged close contact with other crew members will reduce astronaut efficiency and productivity. Such conditions might even lead to psychotic behavior that could endanger the crew or its mission.

"My worst fear is that an astronaut on the way to Mars will suffer a nervous breakdown that will be televised live around the world," said Charles Stovitz, National Aeronautics and Space Administration consultant.

To learn more about what a trip to Mars might be like (and how to select and train astronauts for such missions), NASA psychologists are turning to what many consider the closest earthly analog of a spaceship: the Antarctic camps where small groups of men--and an occasional woman--spend seven to nine months shut off from the rest of humanity by the fierce austral winter.

Trapped by blinding blizzards and temperatures that often reach 100 degrees below zero, scientists and support crews who winter there are as isolated as Mars astronauts would be--perhaps even more so, because the bad weather prevents the continuous communications Americans have grown used to on space missions.

And what the psychologists are finding out about these hardy adventurers is not very reassuring.

Most of the crew endure the winter successfully, but isolation and monotony in the confined outposts take a big toll. Productivity drops, anxiety and hostility soar, risk-taking and rule-breaking escalate, and bizarre and eccentric behavior become more common during the long winter darkness.

At least one murder has occurred in the Antarctic, American experts believe. A Russian scientist is said to have axed a colleague who beat him in a chess game.

Fistfights are not uncommon, and one Australian cook chased a diesel mechanic with a meat cleaver for three hours before both got tired, got drunk and got reconciled. Another Australian crew built stocks outside, locked an unpopular mate in them for four hours and showered him with garbage.

Accidental deaths also occur, some the result of ennui-bred adventurism. Three British scientists died in 1982 when they fell into a crevasse while exploring the forbidden sea ice. Others have been killed or severely injured in accidents that occurred when the monotonous routine caused their attention to wander.

NASA and National Science Foundation scientists met in August in Sunnyvale, Calif., to review what is known about the psychological difficulties of living in Antarctica and to plan future research.

Scientists have spent winters in Antarctica sporadically since 1899, but American bases have been maintained continuously only since the International Geophysical Year in 1957-58. Now, 17 American men and women are at the South Pole, seven at Palmer Station on the Palmer Peninsula, and 188 at the main base, McMurdo Station.

In all, about 800 men and women from 11 other countries occupy 20 bases scattered around the periphery of the huge continent, which is bigger than the U.S. and Europe combined. With only one or two exceptions, the residents of these bases are physically cut off from each other during the winter by distances and the Antarctic weather.

The stations support scientific research, including meteorology, oceanography and marine biology, and scientists are the key staff. Civilian and military crews cook, maintain the generators that provide electricity and the desalinators and heat exchangers that purify sea water or melt snow, and generally keep the bases running.

Once the last flight of the summer has left in mid-February, people quickly fall into a mind-numbing routine, said Patrick E. Cornelius, an astronautical engineer for Boeing Aerospace Corp. who has wintered in Antarctica twice as part of the support crew. Their only escapes, he said, are conversation, listening to music, short excursions outside and watching movies.

"We would use any excuse for a party--sunset, midwinter, holidays, anything," Cornelius recalled. "We would get drunk and act silly to relieve the tension and stress."

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