Is it Possible for Humans to Stay Sane in Space?

Is it Possible for Humans to Stay Sane in Space?

Space Travel is an incredibly hostile experience which can leave an ever-lasting impact on the mind of an astronaut.

Space Exploration is the talk of the town these days as more and more missions are reaching the far-off destinations of our universe. All the space agencies of the world including NASA, Roscosmos, China National Space Administration, JAXA, and UK Space Agency are trying their best to gather more and more information about our surroundings. The idea of finding an alternative habitat for humans has provided a serious acceleration to these efforts. The impact of space on human health is the thing that gets neglected most of the times in this race. Traditionally, only the physical aspects of the human body are considered but space poses a much bigger threat to the psychological needs of the traveling astronauts.

Despite the fact that the spaceflights were much shorter than what we get nowadays, the astronauts who traveled to space in the 1960s were selected on the basis of their clear-headedness and calmness under pressure. Popular missions of that time, like the Gemini and the Mercury, were only a few hours long. Even the Apollo Missions that toured the Moon lasted for only some days. James Picano, a Senior Operational Psychologist of the Behavioral Health and Performance (BHP) group of NASA, praised the determination of the famous ‘Mercury Seven’ in the following words:

“They were highly motivated, had strong emotional control and were used to pushing themselves to the extreme.”

In addition to their capabilities, the public relations of NASA also played an important role in presenting a positive image of them. A retired clinical psychologist, Douglas Vakoch, mentioned that the competition between the Soviet Union and the United States pushed the authorities to portray their astronauts as heroes. He added that the criterion for spaceflights was extremely strict and showing any signs of psychological issues meant an end to the flying career of the astronaut.

The authorities of the Soviet Union were the first to realize that their cosmonauts need psychological training before going for a space mission. The primary focus of these trainings was to develop calmness in their personalities so that they could absorb the tension of a stressful situation. In addition to that, they were taught the principles of teamwork. The Russians developed an active orbital outpost, called Mir, in the mid-1980s which continued to serve astronauts for the next 15 years. It hosted 125 individuals (both men and women) from 12 different countries across the globe from 1995 to 1999. An American astronaut named David Wolf was also there among these people.

He spent 128 days on the space station and was a part of the team which was onboard the International Space Station (ISS) when it went to its orbit in 1998. The psychological training of Wolf was identical to what cosmonauts were receiving and all his descriptions stamped the verdict that it is extremely hard. For example, he mentioned that all his team members were made to hike and rappel in freezing temperatures without sleeping for up to 9 days. Similarly, he was kept in an unbearably hot, cramped capsule for 3 days alongside a couple of other astronauts. He remembered his training days by saying,

“You learn to make decisions based on insufficient information which is what you must do during a space mission.”

Nowadays, a lot of efforts are being made to colonize Mars and it is quite a popular idea among the scientific community. Having said that, traveling to the red planet of our solar system is quite different to the space missions that our astronauts have experienced so far. It is an extremely long journey which can have serious psychological implications for the astronauts. The view of Earth from the space has always been a comforting factor for the traveling astronauts but they will be deprived of this sight during their visit to the Mars. Picano referred to that and said,

“Seeing the Earth from space, the overview effect is a source of comfort to astronauts, who have reported it gives them a feeling of protectiveness or sense of responsibility.”

The Russian authorities conducted an isolation study between 2007 and 2011 which lasted for 520 days. The results showed that 4 out of 6 scientists developed psychiatric issues like depression. Likewise, it was found that strategies for coping frustration are also critical as there will be a 40-minute delay while communicating with their home base on Earth. An experiment of NASA was performed to analyze the reactions of the astronauts in this regard. 6 people were cramped in isolation for more than a year on the Big Island of Hawaii and their only way to communicate with the outside world was through a 40-minute-delayed email. The findings revealed that the best we can do is to choose the most resilient people and then hope for the best.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *