110-Day Isolation Ends in Sullen ... Isolation


It was a cosmic psychological experiment that started with a fistfight and a regrettably stolen kiss and ended with a great deal of cross-cultural confusion.

When the members of an international crew emerged from their 110-day isolation experiment aboard a replica of the Mir space station earlier this month, psychologists monitoring the project at Moscow's Institute for Biomedical Problems realized they had a few problems to iron out.

One Russian tried to "forcibly" kiss a Canadian on the lips, according to the woman's account; a Japanese investigator asked to be let out after two months, without giving any explanation; two Russians locked horns in a fistfight; and the four-man international crew asked for outside help to close the hatch connecting their module with the Russians' - separating the two groups for the last month and a half of the experiment.

But astronauts and scientists alike now concede that the experiment - the first of its kind - taught them some important lessons.

The psychologists said their new challenge was to teach crew members to solve their personal problems with mature discussion, without asking for outside help and inviting further isolation - a challenge they'll have to meet before 2012, when the participating countries expect to launch the International Space Station, where cosmonauts will stay for up to three years.

Click here to read our special report on Russia's New Space Age."You have to understand that Mir is an autonomous object, far away from anything. If the crew can't solve problems among themselves, they can't work together," said Vadim Gushchin, one of the institute's psychologists.

If these incidents were to happen in space, Gushchin said, the psychologists obviously wouldn't be there to smooth things over.

The team of investigators from Canada, Austria, Japan and Russia joined a four-man Russian crew that had already spent 24 weeks in isolation. The eight crew members, non of them native-English speakers, communicated throughout their stay in English at varying levels of proficiency.

A statement from the institute - where the experiment took place - described the mission as "fulfilling" and said it provided "a wealth of unique observations of the multinational crew and female behavior."

Two Russian investigators who spent 240 days in isolation did not get along with each other "right down to the use of physical force," Gushchin said.

Though he declined to go into further detail about the brawl, Gushchin chalked it up to the stress of a new and limited environment combined with a New Year's celebration, complete with champagne, which was the backdrop for both the fight and the unsolicited kiss.

"We think it happened because it was New Year's and everyone was celebrating and letting themselves go," he said.

Upon her release from isolation, French-Canadian investigator Judith Lapierre, 32, went immediately to the Canadian press with her complaint that one of the Russian crew members sexually harassed her by trying to kiss her during the New Year's festivities.

Lapierre said Wednesday that she just wanted the Russians to admit that one of their team had made a mistake.

According to Gushchin, however, the Russian crew member involved in the incident apologized immediately afterward, as soon as he realized he had offended Lapierre.

The Russian crew member's name was withheld.

"The Russians wanted to solve the problem among themselves. [Lapierre] didn't want to," Gushchin said.

Referring to Lapierre as highly emotional, Gushchin added that she didn't fully understand that a crew isn't about one person, but about a group of very different people trying to figure out ways to solve problems in extreme situations.

"You can interpret the incident in different ways," Gushchin said. "The Russian didn't even realize anything was wrong," he said. "He apologized and thought it was over."

"I can't refuse to believe Judith, and I can't refuse to believe the Russian participant, but his account of the event is slightly different - on an emotional level, at least. We have different cultural understandings."

Gushchin said the problems were resolved with the psychologists' help via a group meeting where crew members discussed the matter Monday after their stay was over - but Lapierre had already gone to the press with her story. As a result, he said, the Russian crew member's family is subjected to the embarrassment of publications about an incident that has been blown out of proportion.

Instead of focusing on the project's "dirty laundry," Gushchin suggested honoring the crew members - all of whom have given a year of their lives to science, away from their families - and recognizing the significance of this experiment for the future of the ISP.

This was the first time Mir experimented with an international crew. "They have been observed during times of heightened irritability, brief loss of self-control, excessive emotions," Gushchin said, and problems are bound to arise.

Lapierre believes she shouldn't have to deal with the problem in isolation.

"I'm a scientist," she said. "I came here to work, not to fight men, and if the Russians want to fight we shouldn't have to witness it. We deserve a respectable working place and a normal code of conduct.

"Something like this has never happened before," she said referring to both the stolen kiss and the fistfight.

"Still, we'll learn from these events, and that was the point."

Canadian Space Agency spokeswoman Leena Tomi, who was sent to Moscow to help resolve the conflict, said, "We'll be digesting all this. The purpose is to help future space crews avoid these problems. We're learning all the time."

"This experiment would not have been complete if it had not revealed conflict situations that could arise on the ISP with international crews," said doctor and cosmonaut Valery Polyakov, who headed the team of four Russian cosmonauts and holds the world record for the longest space flight - 438 days.

One comforting feature of the project, Gushchin said, was that the psychologists themselves got along splendidly.