After spending a year at Concordia – ESA’s isolated, Antarctic research station – to understand what life would be like on Mars, Dr Beth Healey knows a thing or two about social distancing. Here she talks space medicine, isolation and outreach…
So, that must have been quite a year! How did you land that gig? It was an absolutely incredible year. I’d just finished a ski tour and was contemplating my next adventure when I saw the job advertised on the European Space Agency website. I read the job description and knew it was for me. I left the Emergency Department at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital a month later to start my training, and then suddenly I was at Concordia! Before this, I’d never been to Antarctica but I’d had a lot of experience of working in the cold previously. In the North Pole and Siberia I worked on cold marathons helping competitors with condition-based problems such as frostbite and dehydration, in addition to being part of medical and logistical support teams in isolated, remote environments such as Svalbard and Greenland.
What science were you engaged in during your time? Across the twelve months at Concordia, I was responsible for co-ordinating and implementing seven different protocols chosen by the European Space Agency. These seven protocols were a combination of psychology, physiology and microbiology – so a real range.
We all wore special watches for a period of time to monitor our sleep patterns and interaction with others. There were recreational areas there, but spending time with the same people in a confined space – with nowhere else to go – causes a similar physiological and psychological stresses experienced by astronauts on the ISS. The data from the watch told me if I was spending more time in the gym than socialising with the rest of the crew so we were able to scientifically monitor how human behaviour is impacted over time by extreme conditions.
One thing we implemented was the BacFinder experiment to investigate whether there were bacteria, fungi and viral colonies that seemed to have adapted to the cold and were surviving in the tough conditions there. Concordia is barren – the temperatures dip as low as -80ºC and the humidity is less than the Sahara. We can learn so much from organisms surviving in extreme conditions, so mission designers can consider using them for our future in space travel.
In what ways will ESA use this data for missions to Mars? Concordia is a spaceflight analogue. That is to say, the conditions there are similar to the conditions experienced by astronauts on long duration space flight missions – a small international crew, long periods of isolation and lower light and oxygen levels. Studying the effects of low oxygen levels at Concordia will be used to design future spacecrafts – or space habitats. The physical impacts of oxygen and blood pressure are important, but mental health is equally as significant.
We recorded video diaries that were then later analysed by computer software, which looked to uncover how we truly felt regardless of what we said. This type of data is crucial to help us assess how astronauts are able perform when they’re so far away from Earth. All the data collected – from the effects on blood pressure caused cold by to the physical effect isolation has on the brain – will be used to inform us about the human aspect of long duration spaceflight missions of the future to Mars, the Moon and beyond.
Having spent a year on a Mars analogue, would you go for real? If I were given the opportunity, I would certainly go to Mars for real – but only if there was a chance of return, one-way missions don’t interest me!
What’s next for you? Well I spent 2 months in Greenland since getting back – seems like I can’t get enough of the white stuff!
Obviously talking to the public is a big part of your role now – why is outreach like this so important? I think it’s so exciting how much we can all learn from sharing our experiences – it’s great to get people as interested in space as I am. When I was a medical student, I had this amazing opportunity to visit the European Astronaut Centre for a space medicine workshop. It really sparked my interest – not just in space medicine, but in the huge variety of careers available in the space industry.
My path into this field was heavily influenced by individuals who inspired me and made me realise that almost anything is achievable. Talking at shows and exhibitions is a fantastic platform to talk about and share my experiences, and to be that inspiration to others who are now in the position I was in just a few years ago.
Dr Beth Healey is an emergency medicine doctor based in the UK, was a research doctor with the European Space Agency.