How to prevent an astronaut bloodbath on Mars

Sometime within the next two decades, a select cadre of men and women will likely embark on a trailblazing adventure: the first manned mission to Mars. Several private organizations, including Dutch nonprofit Mars One and space tourist Dennis Tito's Inspiration Mars, have already announced plans to send people to the red planet. And NASA is preparing for its own massive undertaking, in the hopes of getting astronauts to Mars by the 2030s.

Pulling off a successful mission will require profound feats of technology and science. Among them? Figuring out how to prevent astronauts confined to a cramped, isolated capsule for several years from coming to blows. "When a bad day happens, it isn't so easy to address in space," says Douglas Vakoch, PhD, a clinical psychologist and senior scientist at the SETI Institute. "It's inherently difficult, psychologically, to make sure astronauts are able to handle this."

NASA is conducting its own research on the issue. Last week, the agency handed out a $1.3 million contract to psychologists at Michigan State University to further the development of a psychosocial sensing "badge" that astronauts would wear during their mission to the red planet. The pocket-sized badges, says project leader Steve Kozlowski, PhD, will be designed to track physiological markers of an astronaut's psychological health — like blood pressure and heart rate — as well as the dynamics of their social interactions. "You can never ensure that nothing bad will happen," Kozlowski said. "But a coherent means of assessing interactions and stress ... is one way to protect against any negative outcomes."

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