What Four Months on Mars Taught Me About Boredom

The scene: I'm in my closet-sized cabin, inside a white dome built to house a crew of six for four months as part of an isolation experiment. As a crew, we are working and living as 'explorers' stationed on the surface of 'Mars'. Our colony is lifelike and NASA-funded, but it is situated in a place quite a bit closer to home, on a remote slope of a Hawai'ian volcano.

It's only a couple weeks before we are to be released, and I'm sitting on my bed with my laptop, sorting data from a sleep study I've been conducting on myself and my crewmates for the past three months. My cabin door is open. From the corner of my eye, I see a stranger walk into the washroom a few meters away. It's odd, I think, for a stranger to be here. Our doors are not locked during the day, but our habitat is positioned in an isolated area, at a high elevation, far away from paved roads and pedestrians. The sight of an unfamiliar person nonchalantly using our facilities is enough to jack up my senses to high alert.

Finally, the stranger steps out of the bathroom and confronts me. 'What,' he says, less a question, more a bark. His voice kicks me to reality. It's Simon, our red-headed engineer who has evidently shorn his beard and lost more weight over the mission than I had previously noticed.

Still, my heart is racing and a surge of blood warms me from earlobe to fingertip. 'I didn't know who you were,' I say. He nods and gives a slight smile. We both laugh uneasily at the absurd thought of an intruder. It's almost too impossible for us to imagine.

And it was shortly thereafter, as the tail end of my terror entwined with the emergent joy of relief, that I notice I hadn't felt anything so strongly in months. I had been living in a kind of torpor. I was loathe to admit it at the time, because it implied a poor personality match with adventurers and those of the explorer class in which my crew and I – acting earnestly as astronaut stand-ins – saw ourselves. Yet, in retrospect, there is no escaping it: I was bored and had been bored for quite some time.

It's conditions such as these – monotony, idleness, tedium, sensory deprivation, loneliness – that concern NASA psychologists who want to send a crew to Mars. Using existing technologies, a trip to the red planet will take 200 to 300 days of travel. Most of the time will be spent inside a cramped capsule. There will be a communication delay with Earth of up to 20 minutes due to a yawning gap of tens of millions of miles. Real-time chatting or video calls with friends and family and mission support will be impossible.

In addition to the isolation and sensory deprivation, there will still be repetition of meals and routines and clothing and conversations between crewmembers. The workloads will still likely be full of tedium with narrow margins for error. In short, a mission to Mars has the perfect ingredient list for boredom and disaster borne of boredom.

On the International Space Station, 250 miles above the planet's surface, astronauts spend much of their leisure time gazing at and photographing Earth. As a Mars-bound ship drifts millions of miles from home, this major source of interest and connection to humanity will recede into the void.

A trip to Mars, with its invisible technology and vast, unprecedented distance from home, could estrange or alienate a crew to an unprecedented degree. Such a distance could produce an entirely new kind of boredom, impossible to imagine on Earth.

Or, it might not be so bad. In addition to selecting astronauts with sound minds, providing the crew with careful and considerate mission support, and enabling crew autonomy in work and leisure (such as with games and films), another way psychologists suppose NASA could beat boredom could be through interior design. One suggestion has been to include a periscope inside a Mars-bound ship that could magnify an image of Earth for gazing. Another is to include a system that projects Earth images onto a screen, or a kind of holodeck, like the one from the 1980s TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The Mars project, called HI-SEAS (Hawai'i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation), was designed to investigate a particular type of boredom called menu fatigue or food boredom. Because food is crucial to energy, health, and morale, and because astronauts tend to tire of the same pre-packaged meals and eat fewer calories, NASA funded the HI-SEAS project to see whether it might be better to let a crew cook some meals for themselves once they regained gravity on the Martian surface. The study ended last August, and the results aren't yet in, but I suspect that the variety of food available was sufficient so that cuisine wasn't my major source of boredom. There were other, more insidious culprits.

Two nights a week we watched a movie that, while scheduled and enjoyed, often felt a little forced. Sundays were mostly free days, although surveys and meal reports were still required, and many of us used that day to catch up on lingering work obligations. We did, however, celebrate monthly milestones and birthdays with specially prepared food and music.

It's easy to see how we believed we weren't bored at the time, especially since we all knew the negative association boredom has for astronauts and explorers. We did begin to feel restless at the end, though. At the time, one crewmember joked, with a wild look in his eye, that he imagined ripping through the habitat cover and finally going for a walk, sans spacesuit.

And indeed, I had experienced it before. After doing some reading around on the topic, I discovered that certain behaviours – imagining oneself in the future, making new plans, learning new skills, setting goals, trying to refresh and start anew – are typical of someone who feels bored. I could check all of these off. For as long as I can remember, I've responded to an ill-defined niggling inside that propels me to try new things.

I was often inspired to try new things on Mars, whether it was new kinds of writing, sketching, or picking up an instrument. And there was absolutely a point in the mission when all I could do was think about future plans: my wife and I signing up for a timeshare yurt with friends, for instance, or travelling to Puerto Rico, or writing a new book. Some of these imaginings certainly bordered on bliss. All this felt familiar, somehow. Might I actually suffer from chronic boredom and not even know it?

My time on Mars showed me the light and dark side of boredom. My creative side relished the opportunity for a quiet mind that could seek out new tasks and get lost in an imaginary futures. But the wannabe astronaut in me worried that boredom lowered my interest in certain necessary and repetitive tasks and led to needless ennui. If only boredom could be compartmentalised. And I wonder now if that's what all this talk about missions to Mars is about. Our astronauts and explorers act as collective bearers of boredom as we search for new worlds and experiences.

This article has been excerpted with permission from Aeon Magazine. To read in its entirety, head here.

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Aeon is a new digital magazine of ideas and culture, publishing an original essay every weekday. It sets out to invigorate conversations about worldviews, commissioning fine writers in a range of genres, including memoir, science and social reportage.