Keeping Astronauts Sane

Updated on July 8, 2018
Natalie Frank profile image

Natalie Frank, a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, authors articles about health, behavioral science, current events, writing and marketing.

Close working conditions makes good interpersonal skills a must
Close working conditions makes good interpersonal skills a must

Psychology has had a huge impact on our understanding of the space race of the past, today’s current missions, and future journeys beyond the orbit of earth. The first missions into space were short with small crews all of whom usually came from the same country. Over the years, missions have become lengthier and the space race resulting in cooperation among nations has led to more diverse crews. This means that there has been a need to discover and develop positive, constructive and adaptive ways to cope with the stress of working in space and to communicate in spite of cultural differences.

It is now widely recognized that adequate coping mechanisms need to be taught to astronauts before their launch date so they become second nature. Learning how to properly handle interpersonal problems both between and within countries is also critical for future missions. This understanding has come out of experiences in different eras and from different missions which have required the use of different coping skills and methods.

How Does Psychology Apply to Space Exploration?

It is no secret that astronauts live and work in out of the ordinary and highly stressful surroundings where they are constantly challenged physically and psychologically. Mission success largely relies on their ability to maintain their own well-being and that of the other members of the crew. This calls for a focus on positive psychological outlooks and presupposes the skills to be able to conduct supportive interpersonal relationships.

At the same time, it is obvious that each astronaut brings with them a certain psychological makeup, personality style, belief system, coping preferences, background, way of thinking about things and general way of viewing the word. All of these factors play a role in how they adapt to their mission in space and to the individual nature of those with whom they work.

There are a number of psychological stressors that astronauts experience on a mission. The w must tolerate significant disruptions to their physiology, including sleep alterations, radiation exposure, and changes in gravity, which can seriously impact mood. They must live and work in confined spaces with social interactions being seriously limited and they are far from home. Their work has major implications not just for those in their own country but for people around the globe now and in the future. Additionally, they are under constant scrutiny by those at NASA and the public at large. Being in such close proximity to the rest of the crew 24/7 means that the mood and behavior of one astronaut will likely impact the others they are working with. Without the support and intervention of psychiatrists and psychologists, these factors could severely affect the well-being of the entire crew and result in the premature termination of a mission.

The History of Mental Health Specialists in NASA

From the very beginning of the space program, psychologists, psychiatrists, behavioral medicine experts, human factors experts, and other professionals cautioned leaders about the psychological toll of living and working in space. They asserted this toll was a major risk factor for mental health problems that could jeopardize the missions and lead to long term negative outcomes in the astronauts The experts warned the leaders at NASA that this risk would increase as missions became more complex, had longer duration and involved larger, more diversified crews.

In an effort to head off such problems, these experts called for research into predicting what factors lead to an increase in space travel risk and the development and application of preventive countermeasures that could be applied. Psychological intelligence played a major role and contributed a great deal of knowledge to the establishment and inception of the space program.

As valuable as these efforts were, once problems at the beginning of the program had been addressed, the benefits of including psychology experts in the developing administration were no longer acknowledged. For many years after that most areas of psychology were all but absent from NASA. It would be decades before psychological contributions would once again help shape the way astronauts were trained and supported before, during and after NASA missions.

Part of this absence was due to the reluctance of NASA to have astronauts seen as anything but perfect. People wanted their heroes to be heroes and not to be shown to be blemished in any way. Even the press showed an aversion to find out negative information about astronauts, instead seeking to confirm that they embodied America’s deeply held virtues. Psychological research suggesting the slightest possibility that a mission could be compromised by psychological issues would have been a public relations nightmare.

It wasn’t until the mid-1990’s that the usefulness of psychological techniques addressing interpersonal adaptation was once more recognized. This was the time when U.S. astronauts joined Russian cosmonauts on the Russian space station Mir. However, the focus was a bit skewed. This was because NASA and U.S. leaders were more concerned with enhancing performance than improving interpersonal relations. The goal was to enable the astronauts to show up the cosmonauts. Information processing research was also utilized to help the astronauts better gather information about their counterparts while preventing the Russians from gaining information about the U.S. space program.

Although many psychology research scientists believed these goals to be counterproductive in helping the astronauts adjust and adapt, they realized that their inclusion back into the space program would give them leeway to examine other questions as well. They used the opportunity to include variables that had been previously overlooked, at first clandestinely while providing the data for which NASA had asked. These included such areas as personality and social psychology, Later when they began to carefully reveal other findings, they began their struggle to have the psychology field acknowledged and accepted as part of the space program.

Over time the field of psychology obtained greater recognition for their efforts in astronaut selection and continuous psychological support. Other research areas that were appreciated by NASA and which gave psychology a permanent place in the administration were how analog environments and simulators could be used for research and training needs, the psychological effects of viewing earth from space, group dynamic based on crew composition space tourism and diversity issues related to international missions.

The isolation of spacewalks adds to the stress experienced by astronauts
The isolation of spacewalks adds to the stress experienced by astronauts

Mental Health Risks of Space Travel

Any long or short space mission happens in an extreme environment setting that is characterized by stressors that are unique to the situation. Even with exceptional selection strategies, the chance that behavioral, psychological and cognitive problems will occur in flight crews remain a threat to mission success. There have been many concerns over the effects of space travel on the functioning of astronauts. In particular, NASA psychologists worry about the psychosocial effects of being confined to a limited area and the experience of feeling isolated in space. These factors could interact with strenuous work schedules, sleep pattern disruptions and the lack of real-time communication with support on Earth. Experts believe such variables could cause a mission to fail if not identified and addressed early.

There have been a number of psychological problems identified on past space missions. Some of these have even resulted in missions ending early. In 1976, the Soviet Soyuz 21 mission to the Salyut 5 station was ended when astronauts repeatedly reported smelling a strong aversive odor. The cause of the odor was never found and it was determined that the crew was suffering from a shared delusion caused by the stress of the mission. In 1985, the Soviet Soyuz T14-Salyut 7 mission ended came to an abrupt end due to symptoms of depression reported by the astronauts.

The psychological state of crew members has also led to some frightening circumstances. In the 1980s, a crew member on the shuttle Challenger became upset when his experiment failed and he threatened not to return to Earth. Ground control wasn’t exactly certain what that meant but they feared he had become suicidal. In a similar incident in 2001, one of the crew members seemed unusually fixated on the hatch, and seemed to be focused on how easy it would be to open it and get sucked out into space.

Keeping Astronauts Psychologically Healthy

NASA has spent much time conducting research and consulting with experts in order to keep their astronauts emotionally fit and to reduce the risks of mental health issues occurring during space travel. Today psychiatrists and psychologists provide support for astronauts and their families from selection and the beginning of training through the end of the mission and afterwards. They help astronauts adjust back to life on earth and help them reintegrate into the workplace after the mission has been concluded. They provide evaluation and counseling services for the astronaut and as well as for family members individually and in dyads or groups. They may even be involved with the astronaut until the end of their career.

Astronaut candidates must go through hours of psychiatric screen during the selection process. Recruits are assessed for a number of psychological variables, the most important of which involve their ability to handle stressful situations in general and in outer space, and their ability to function in a group setting. Candidates are also screened for psychopathology and substance use. Other factors that are evaluated include:

  • Decision making skills

  • Judgement and problem solving abilities

  • The ability to work as a team member

  • Emotional self-regulation skills

  • Motivation to complete the mission

  • Conscientiousness

  • Communications skills

  • Leadership qualities

The majority work done by the psychiatry team involves active astronauts. There are usually around 40 active astronauts at NASA. They are notified about their participation in a space mission two years prior to launch. The psychiatry/psychology group begin to work with the astronaut and their spouse and children, when appropriate, as soon as possible and not later than notification of their launch date. Active astronauts are carefully monitored for behavioral irregularities and psychological distress as they approach their liftoff date. Support and counseling is provided to help them deal with normal reactions and responses to leaving earth and adjusting to life aboard the International Space Station. They are also trained to recognize, identify and handle symptoms of psychological or emotional difficulties in not only themselves but in other crew members as well. They are taught to understand the behavioral ramifications of psychological distress that can cause the mission to be compromised.

During the mission, astronauts on the International Space Station take part in psychological conferences every two weeks. Psychiatry/Psychology Specialists conduct a private video conference with each astronaut individually to assess adjustment and any problems they might be experiencing. They review a number of areas during the conference including:

  • Sleep

  • Perceptions of crew moral

  • How the astronauts is handling the workload

  • Their involvement in recreational activities and hobbies

  • Instances of fatigue or the degree to which they feel overworked

  • Their relationship with the other astronauts and ground crew

  • Concerns about their family

  • Any other difficulties they may be experiencing that is affecting their adaptation and adjustment to living in space

If astronauts experience a severe problem and feel they need immediate help, they have a number to call or can send an email at any time. Both contacts are monitored 24/7 and astronauts receive immediate attention for whatever the problem is. If major concerns result from one of these contacts the psychiatric team will consult with the space surgeon to determine whether immediate intervention is needed and if so, what course of action to take. In all cases, there will be follow-up with the astronaut to evaluate whether the problem is under control or alleviated or whether additional action needs to be taken. The most common problems reported by astronauts are trouble sleeping, irritability, annoyance with fellow crew members and interpersonal difficulties, mood lability, depressed mood and feelings discouragement, nervousness or anxiety.

Once the astronauts return to Earth, they must participate three additional psychological evaluations and debriefings. These occur at 3 days, 14 days, and 30 to 45 days post touchdown. During these assessments they review the lessons the astronauts learned during their mission and they are aided in adjusting to their role on the ground. Given the infrequency of missions, many astronauts do not have the option of participating in another space mission. Therefore, as part of the evaluations, astronauts are provided guidance in deciding whether to stay with NASA or pursue a different career course.

The psychiatry team also makes sure that the astronaut has enough enjoyable activities to participate in to wind down and relax. These may be sports related, hobbies they engaged in before the mission, new skills they would like to learn for fun, or family activities that are geared for family bonding and enjoyment. The team feels that considering astronauts are forced to live and work constantly surrounded by the same few individuals in their office for six months or more that once they return their down time should be extremely fun and highly rejuvenating.

In addition to psychological screenings for mental health problems during selection, and professional evaluation and support during and after the missions, NASA attempts to ensure emotional health through psychosocial supports provided through other mental health professionals. They maintain a Family Support Office which is a resource for families. This office holds educational programs and supplies information updates on other sources of psychosocial help. While on missions, astronauts are provided with internet access, supplies for different hobbies in which they normally engage, and care packages to give them a sense of being connected to home (Johnson, 2013)

Physicians are also utilized to prescribe medications to help with mood and other problems and astronauts often use pharmaceuticals to help them handle the stress of space travel cope with the stresses of space travel. According to one study 94 percent of astronaut missions included the use of medication as a means of helping crew members cope (Putcha, Berens, Marshburn, Ortega, & Billica, 1999). Much of the medications used was for sleep problems or motion sickness, but a small but significant amount was used for mood problems including depression and anxiety symptoms. More recently research has shown that 78 percent of crew members took sleeping pills during shuttle missions and many also use other medication for mood problems (Wotring, 2012).

New strategies are being developed to help crews during space flight. Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) is one focus for helping astronauts with the stress of space travel. Systems using self delivered strategies via computer programs have been shown to be very effective in enhancing psychological treatments and improving mood in simulator research.

The contributions of psychology help keep astronauts healthy and happy
The contributions of psychology help keep astronauts healthy and happy

Conclusions

Psychology and the development and use of psychological research, screenings and interventions has increases and improved over time in the Space Program. NASA has become increasingly willing to include psychology in conceptualizing, planning and carrying out space missions. Whereas once psychology was viewed only in terms of weeding out unfit recruits, it is now recognized that psychology has an important role to plan in the wellbeing of astronauts.

Yet while, NASA has come a long way in terms of its acceptance of psychology as crucial to the functioning of its astronauts, there is still much to learn about mental health and space travel. The issue of astronauts wanting to hide mental health problems during screening to prevent being ruled out is also a concern so better screening systems are needed. Little research exists on the use of psychiatric medication during space travel. This needs to be remedied given the number of astronauts who use medication while in space.

As NASA plans for travel to Mars, the likelihood of new psychological problems must be examined. The crew traveling to Mars cannot remain in direct contact with loved ones and there are not regularly scheduled replacement crews, food and care packages like there are on the International Space Station. This means that the new strategies must be devised to combat the negative effects of isolation and confinement which will pose the largest risk for crew traveling on new longer distance missions.

NASA has stated that so far, they have had no emergencies in space. However, as missions become longer in duration and venture further from earth, the risk of such a thing happening increases. The psychological effects of extended space travel will need to be better understood and ways of handing psychological treatment during space missions will need to be developed to prevent serious mental health related emergencies from developing.

References

Botella, C., Baños, R. M., Etchemendy, E., García-Palacios, A., & Alcañiz, M. (2016). Psychological countermeasures in manned space missions:“EARTH” system for the Mars-500 project. Computers in Human Behavior, 55, 898-908.

Johnson, P. J. (2013). The roles of NASA, US Astronauts, and their families in long-duration missions. In On Orbit and Beyond (pp. 69-89). Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.

Popov, Alexandre, Wolfgang Fink, and Andrew Hess, "PHM for Astronauts–A New Application." In Annual Conference of the Prognostics and Health Management Society, pp. 566-572. 2013.

Putcha, L., Berens, K. L., Marshburn, T. H., Ortega, H. J., & Billica, R. D. (1999). Pharmaceutical use by US astronauts on space shuttle missions. Aviation, space, and environmental medicine, 70(7), 705-708.

Wotring, V. E. (2012). Pharmacology During Spaceflight Missions.

© 2018 Natalie Frank

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    • Natalie Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Natalie Frank 

      8 days ago from Chicago, IL

      I agree Threekeys - NASA and the astronauts themselves were reluctant for there to be an association of mental health services -It didn't work with the whole hero image - The Right Stuff and all of that. Now we hopefully realize we all have weaknesses and vulnerabilities and the ability to identify these and get help to work through and alleviate them is really what the Right Stuff amounts to. Thanks for the comment and for stopping by.

    • threekeys profile image

      Threekeys 

      9 days ago from Australia

      Whst a interesting subject. It's true for me. You are led to think astronauts are "complete" and are without any human frailities Therefore never thought of this side of the equation until you mentioned it here in this article. It would have been good if you had been able to include more day to day examples of what personally challenged them. There were a couple of specifics like the "fascination with the hatch and finding it hard to sleep".

      Overall you brought us topic that would fly under the radar.

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