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Life on Mars

Life on Mars
As the rest of us prepare to enjoy the festive season, within a somewhat surreal NASA hangar in the US, a group of experienced and would-be astronauts are now well into a strange experiment designed to examine the fitness of human beings for a year-long flight to Mars.

For 12 months, this small “community” will remain in isolation, as the social and medical scientists peer in at them as they replicate their voyage to the Red Planet. The results of this experiment are expected to inform the space administration as it contemplates the next great step for mankind. Will they go barmy? Will social tensions emerge as the months progress and the pseudo-reality of their isolation begins to affect their behaviour?

NASA is awash with some of the world’s cleverest scientists and engineers, but they might have saved an awful lot of money if they had merely sent a couple of their top observers to sea in a modern merchant ship. Here, at a fraction of the price, they could study the isolation and social exclusion endured by seafarers on long contracts with limited contacts with the outside world. Weightlessness, other than when the ship is pitching very heavily, would not be experienced, but in other respects, most astronauts would surely feel at home.

The intensity of modern ship operations, the winnowing of the crew to a number which most social scientists would conclude is too small for cohesion and the practice of multi-cultural and multi-lingual manning, do not make for a life less isolated, or more fun. But it is the way in which seafarers are treated by immigration departments that makes for even less happiness. Shore leave, once seen as a seafarer’s “right” (always at the Master’s discretion) is now a privilege grudgingly conceded by the authorities, which, in many countries insist on the provision of visas, which may be both costly and difficult to obtain.

Life is not getting easier on the shore leave front. Terrorism, mass migration and the passage of refugees all require seafarers to jump higher hurdles, if they would like to get ashore for a few hours. While tourists bring revenue and the authorities will treat them with consideration, seafarers are often made to feel that they are a nuisance, in their floating homes. There has been little or no progress in the acceptance of the seafarers’ identity documents, which were hurriedly developed by the International Labour Organisation in the nervous days after 9/11, all those years ago.

Why does this matter? Who sticks up for those foreign travellers who call their ships home and would like to get ashore occasionally? Governments couldn’t care less, with the people who man the ships who keep their economies ticking over, well down the list of priorities. They are probably foreigners, mostly from developing countries. It requires the energies of the welfare organisations and the seafarers’ unions to keep this issue on somebody’s “to do” list.

It is not that seafarers want a great deal. The author Rose George wrote about a crew, who asked by the port chaplain what he could do for them, replied that they would just like to walk around on some grass for a while. A Mission to Seafarers chaplain takes car carrier crew members to a nearby motorway service station, where they can buy a few things in the shop and watch the world go by, just for a few minutes, on their very brief stops in the port. These might be considered the lucky ones. For a large numbers of seafarers, with no respite in port and a guard on the gangway, they have to make do with a brief smell of the land, from the confines of their steel box. Their voyage may well be different, only in detail, to that trip to Mars.