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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Study's Volunteers to Be Locked in Space




Judith Lapierre has already started deciding which CDs and books she wants to have along when the hatch to the mock-up space station closes behind her - for 110 days.


Lapierre, a Canadian volunteer, will take part in an international experiment studying how people of different cultures work together in stressful, confined conditions like those aboard the International Space Station.


The first crew will enter a copy of the Mir space station next week at the Moscow Institute of Biomedical Problems in northern Moscow. Under the watchful eye of specialists from the institute and several foreign space agencies, they will experience many of the conditions astronauts are exposed to during extended space flight.


In all, 12 volunteers from six countries are preparing to spend up to eight months breathing an artificial atmosphere, eating space rations, and working together simulating space walks and docking.


Lapierre, 31, said she is not intimidated at the thought of being the only woman confined with three men for more than 16 weeks.


"I think it's very important to have women," she said. "The studies show that it can make a difference for the ambience in a good way, because we add some caring and support."


"It's a unique opportunity and a great introduction to space. It's almost the best training you can get," said Lapierre, who hopes the experiment will help her pass the first hurdles to enter the Canadian astronaut program.


The International Space Station, still being assembled in orbit, will have multinational crews, and that will present challenges, said Alla Vinokhodova, a psychologist at the institute.


"It will be the space equivalent of a communal apartment," she said.


Besides psychological studies of mixed-gender and international groups' exposure to extended confinement, specialists will try to distinguish problems caused by isolation, said Viktor Baranov, the institute's deputy director in charge of the experiment. "We used to consider weightlessness the major factor responsible for psychological and physiological impact, but isolation in a sealed object is just as important," he said.


About 80 scientific experiments in the fields of immunology, biochemistry, nutrition and microbiology, most of them prepared by Russian and Japanese experts, will be conducted.


On July 2, the first team of four Russian volunteers will embark on their 240-day tenure aboard the Mir copy, a 100-cubic-meter cylinder lined with sleeping berths on one side and a long desk with computers and other equipment on the other. A month later, the second group, a German psychologist and three Russians, will join the experiment, spending 110 days in a separate, more spacious segment, connected with the first module by a large metallic tube.


The third team, consisting of a Russian, a Japanese, an American and Lapierre, will take their place in the big module Dec. 3, and also remain in confinement for 110 days.


The second module is twice as big, with several tiny cubicles and a larger meeting room which will also serve as a gym. But it's not exactly luxurious.


Designed and assembled in early 1960s, it shows the style of the time with red-and-white plastic armchairs, wooden panels and bulky Soviet refrigerators. Despite its vintage looks, the station is crammed with hundreds of kilograms of new computer equipment.


Three visiting groups will stay in a small guest facility attached to the big module for a week. They will include astronauts to compare the conditions with the actual space flight experience, supply crews, physicians to conduct in-depth health checkups of the subjects and two journalists who successively passed the tests.


The subjects were selected according to the strict criteria used for choosing astronauts, said Vinokhodova. Psychological pressures are expected to be high, with permanent exposure to mechanical noise, monotony, lack of sunlight and permanent surveillance.


"We tried to select mentally sound people so they wouldn't suffer from claustrophobia and overly deep introspection," said Vinokhodova.


Lapierre, a former nurse who was chosen from over a hundred other applicants, is a graduate of the International Space University in Strasbourg, France, where she studied psycho-sociological aspects of isolation in extreme environments, such as Antarctic expeditions.


She said she is looking forward to the experiment, preparing herself psychologically and doing a lot of physical exercise.


"I could really see myself doing it," she said. "For me it was not a big thing, except for being confined, but when you do something that you've been dreaming about, it takes the pressure out. You feel like you contribute to space development."


The subjects will not be completely cut off. They'll be able to watch television, browse the Internet and communicate via e-mail and telephone with their loved ones. Lapierre, who is married, said her husband was supportive and theymade the decision together. "I don't think love should restrict, it should make you grow," she said.


Lapierre hopes to use any spare time to learn how to play the synthesizer and practice her Russian. The most frustrating thing will be celebrating the arrival of the year 2000 inside, she said.


The Institute of Biomedical Problems has conducted isolation experiments before - in the 1960s, when subjects spent a whole year in confinement, and in 1994 for 135 days. The studies showed that the subjects' systems were affected just as intensely as during space flight, Baranov said.


Psychological tensions between the crew members coming from different cultural backgrounds can increase as weeks pass, said Vinokhodova. Normally, the subjects are reluctant to express their discontent with their colleagues and direct anger outside, often choosing mission control as a scapegoat.


When conflict does erupt, the subjects tend to hide it from supervisors. Russian space psychologists typically avoid direct questions, using more subtle methods of detecting it instead. One method is checking the content of the atmosphere - when people argue, their breathing quickens, and the concentration of carbon dioxide they exhale rises, Vinokhodova said.


Lapierre said she is aware she may face difficulties.


"You are isolated, but it's a paradox, because you are living with people 24 hours a day ... but you don't choose the people you have to work with and have nobody to complain to. It really pushes your limits of tolerance and flexibility," she said.


"Here our lives wouldn't be threatened, but in space, you have to forget your differences to survive," she added.