Keeping Astronauts Sane: A Psychological Insight into Space Travel

Houston, we have a problem!

Writer: Ebani Dhawan
Editor: Priyanka Peres
Artist: Summer Chiuh

Our continual fascination with the universe has led humanity to explore it through spaceflight. For this, astronauts must endure an extremely isolating environment that they are not biologically suited for. They spend months on end in order to bring us closer to the origins of Earth and the universe. What us earthlings tend to forget is that space is an unforgiving environment that does not spare any liberty to human or mechanical errors. Loneliness coupled with high-energy, ionizing cosmic ray nuclei – astronauts often face severe biological and psychological consequences in space. 

To begin with, space missions are stressful. When changing environments so intensely, there needs to be psychological adaptation. Reports from Russian long-duration space missions suggest that this can be sequenced into 4 stages

  • Stage 1: An astronaut must get used to microgravity. This leads to vestibular (inner ear) discomfort and decreased work capability. 
  • Stage 2: At this point, the astronaut is in a period of temporary, but complete adaptation. 
  • Stage 3: The period of complete adaptation is interrupted as insomnia and irritability set in. Astronauts have a narrowed sphere of interest and are quite fatigued.
  • Stage 4: In this last stage, everything flips as astronauts enter a state of euphoria and have diminished self-control. 

Clearly, astronauts go through a galactic rollercoaster of emotions. In spite of this, their ability to maintain positive psychological outlooks and interpersonal relations are crucial for mission success and personal health. Sure, there is a specialist psychiatric team on-ground, but with a 20-minute lag in communication each way, it’s not effective. These various psychological states can lead to, and perhaps predict, certain psychopathologies like depression. 

Take Stage 3, whose defining characteristic is sleep disturbances. There is plenty of evidence that highlights a correlation between insomnia and psychiatric disorders. Ford and Kamerow (1989) reported a correlation between sleep disturbance, specifically insomnia and hypersomnia, and Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 3rd ed, (DSM-III) psychiatric disorders. Findings showed cross-sectional associations between sleep disturbances and major depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders. 

To combat this, space agencies like NASA make sure to look for the “right stuff” in an astronaut. They use current behaviour to predict future behaviour. Their rigorous astronaut selection program aims to find astronauts who can not only survive, but thrive up in space. With such a highly selective process an astronaut candidate must go through, it seems that it should be sufficient to eradicate any chance of a mental disorder from arising. However, we cannot say that with certainty because although psychotic episodes or other mental health issues have not frequently been (or ever) reported, it could be due to their unpredictability and the small literature available. One such example of literature is the medical debriefs following Space Shuttle missions where two psychiatric events affected 7 American astronauts who flew on the Mir Space Station between 1995 and 1998. These ranged from anxiety and depression to memory and interpersonal conflicts.

Both crew and ground personnel need to be aware of the potential damage that psychological problems may induce in long duration missions. As we move into the next era of space travel, increasingly large numbers of people will travel into space for increasingly long distances. Crewmembers on interplanetary missions such as a trip to Mars will have to deal with psychiatric problems themselves with no possibility of evacuating an affected individual. For these reasons, it is imperative that treatments are designed and utilised to maintain the psychological safety and wellbeing of the explorers who devote and risk their lives for further research into the unknown. 

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