Astronauts Going Insane Could Be Biggest Problem For Mars Mission

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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Astronauts bound for Mars could go insane and develop serious psychological problems due to cosmic radiation, according to new research published Monday.

Scientists tested the long term brain damage of similar radiation on rodents, which caused cognitive impairments and dementia. Six months after the rodents were exposed to the radiation, the scientists and the rats were still performing poorly on behavioral tasks designed to test learning and memory, a study conducted by the University of California, Irvine (UCI). NASA estimates that a manned Mars mission would take between one and three years to carry out.

“This is not positive news for astronauts deployed on a two-to-three-year round trip to Mars,” Dr. Charles Limoli, a professor of radiation oncology in UCI’s School of Medicine, said in a press statement. “The space environment poses unique hazards to astronauts. Exposure to these particles can lead to a range of potential central nervous system complications that can occur during and persist long after actual space travel – such as various performance decrements, memory deficits, anxiety, depression and impaired decision-making.”

Limoli noted that similar cognitive dysfunction is common in brain cancer patients who have received high-dose, radiation treatments.  These dementia-like deficits in astronauts would take months of exposure to radiation to manifest, meaning that a lengthy mission to Mars  could certainly put astronauts at risk. These developments could make it much more difficult for NASA to send a mission to Mars.

“Earth’s Moon needs to be a priority in our lead-up to long-term Martian habitation,” an aerospace engineer familiar with NASA Mars proposals who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “It’s a convenient lab to answer all of our questions about human endurance outside of Earth’s magnetosphere and in lower gravity. As the Moon is only ever about 2 to 3 days travel away (at worst), it gives us a test-bed that will pose greater challenges than a Mars mission at a location easily accessible for us to test and verify the numerous lingering hypotheses that are critical to human space flight to other planets.”

Mars-bound spacecraft could be designed to handled some of the radiation with increased shielding, but the highly energetic charged particles would still cause dementia to strike the astronauts nonetheless.

Other NASA research into the psychological problems with Mars missions were much more positive. A study where six scientists simulated living on Mars for a year in a dome to determine if a NASA crew of three men and three women could live in close quarters over an extended period of time without a psychological breakdown, and the results were favorable.

“I can give you my personal impression which is that a mission to Mars in the close future is realistic,” Cyprien Verseux, a French astrobiologist who participated in the study, said in a press statement. “I think the technological and psychological obstacles can be overcome.”

NASA spent $1.2 million on the dome study, but it was run through the University of Hawaii. Another 520-day-long study in Russia came to a similar conclusion. NASA plans to conduct three similar experiments in the near future.

NASA currently plans to send real astronauts to Mars in 2030. The total costs of current plans to send Americans to Mars comes out to roughly $35 billion for a target landing of 2030. America is currently better prepared to visit Mars than it was to visit the Moon in the 1960s, according to a study by NASA’s Johnson Space Center. The rocket intended to take American astronauts to Mars in 2030 passed its final full-scale tests in late June.

NASA already has plans to put a large manned space station in orbit above Mars by 2028. The station will remotely operate rovers, analyze samples off dirt and rock and even make short trips to Mars’s two moons.

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