The Psychology of Long-Duration Space Flight

April 29, 2012

Introduction to the Psychology of Long-Duration Space Flight

by Terence T. (Terry) Gorski

The article below is reprinted from the NASA website (See the above link). I want to bring it to my blog to show how well grounded and practical psychological services can and needs to be an important part of mankind’s most important, exciting, and historic adventures.

Any psychological professional knows that young people need to have a compelling goal that they can be a part of. To interrupt our vision f ongoing space exploration takes away and important psychological motivation for our young people. It takes away m opportunity to say I am a part of something bigger than myself, something glorious, and something to be proud of. Many people, myself included, felt profound disappointed that we were not keeping the dream alive. The young people I have had the honor of talking with felt it also.

The frontiers of science, including the psychological sciences, can lead us to explore strange new worlds, both within us and around us. A focus upon positive psychology can show us, in real ways, how to go where no one has ever dared before.

My career was and continues to be an adventure. I want to pass the dream and vision forward to the new generation. I have had the privilege of serving in an exciting career that has taken me around the world and introduced me to some of the world’s most exciting people. I like to believe, that in some small way, I have contributed to the flow of history that is unfolding within and around me. I want to pass that an exciting vision forward. We can do something that really counts. We can make opportunities to be where the action is doing something that makes a difference

When President John F. Kennedy announced, with the full backing of congress, the ten-year goal of landing a man on the moon and safely returning him to earth, the field of psychology took a hit on the chin. Major players on NASA’s initial psychology team warned against pursuing manned spaceflight because astronauts could not maintain their psychological health during prolonged space flight. NASA responded by significantly reducing the size, scope, and role of the psychological services to screening and crisis intervention.

All exploration carries physical and psychological risks. The field of psychology needs to maintain a can-do attitude toward helping people on the cutting edge of exploration in all areas of our society. To take positions that diminish the role and importance of psychological services is not a good way to go. We need to get involved, as psychological professionals, in working with all sectors of our society, to meet human needs in the ever-changing and politically charged world. I hope this review of an exciting era in USA history can generate some enthusiasm for the new generation entering the field of psychological services. My message is simple: create a powerful vision for your future career. Step into leadership roles. Bring the principle of positive psychology strongly into play in all areas of society. Psychological professional, of all stripes and sizes, should be leading in many critical areas of our society. It is not our primary role to clean the messes made by people who ignore sound psychological principles in meeting real-world challenges.

Here is the brief history, according to NASA, of what has been learned from the integration of psychology into the challenges of space travel. Read! Marvel! Learn! Keep the dream alive in your own heart. Then actualize it. Make your dream real through action. Don’t just adjust to the insanity unfolding around you. It is what it is. You can make a difference.

“One person can make a difference. Every person should try.”
~ John F. Kennedy ~

— NASA HISTORY – The Psychology of Long-term Space Flight —

Spaceflight offers astronauts immense psychological rewards. However, long-duration spaceflight also poses great psychological risks. Dangers, deprivation, isolation, and confinement helped make the Mir residencies—in the words of some U.S. astronauts—the “hardest thing” they had ever done.

Moreover, their spaceflights came on the heels of difficult periods in Russia, where NASA astronauts trained immersed in a foreign culture and language. Add to this the fact that many NASA managers and support people were likewise experiencing lifestyle disruptions and heavy workloads, and the psychological aspect became as important as any physical aspect.

Up until Shuttle-Mir, most NASA astronauts were able to consider the physical risks before their flights. They could put [the risk] into perspective and launch with happy hearts. When dangerous situations occurred suddenly, they were usually over quickly. Even in the frightening case of Apollo 13, the crisis lasted only a few days.

With long-duration spaceflight, danger always exists; and living long in danger’s presence increases one’s awareness of it. Yet, for the most part, the Mir astronauts were able to adjust to this awareness—and even to add to their confidence in Mir’s overall safety. For example, about the collision incident that occurred during NASA-5, Mike Foale described his feelings.

“It was frightening for one or two seconds,” he said. “The first thought was—are we going to die instantly because of air rushing out so that we couldn’t control it? It was obvious within two or three seconds that the air wasn’t rushing out. Then we thought we had time, and I heard the pressure dropping. Immediately from that point, I thought ‘Oh, this is a surprisingly robust station.’”

Meanwhile on the ground, Frank Culbertson and other managers faced the danger from their perspectives. They not only had to assess the risks, but they had to assure critics in Congress and elsewhere that their assessments were correct.

Sensory deprivation is another key factor in long-duration spaceflight. It manifests itself in many ways. The first sensory element to go is the pull of gravity and its physical comfort of rootedness. On shorter Shuttle flights, the lack of gravity often remains a pleasant novelty. But, combined with the other factors, microgravity could add to a long-duration astronaut’s discomfort. However, most of the Mir astronauts reported enjoying microgravity. John Blaha said he didn’t miss the pull of gravity at all. Andy Thomas wrote that microgravity was “the one thing that makes spaceflight both interesting and, at the same time, very frustrating . . . It can be a joy to experience, but [it] also can really make your work day difficult.”

An astronaut’s sense of time could also be affected. Sunrise and sunset alternate every 45 minutes. The sleep-and-wake cycle could come to feel arbitrary. And, when one is working long hours without refreshing breaks, the passage of time could seem to expand or contract. Worse, the amount of time left in a mission could become difficult to gauge. Yet, the Mir astronauts did not relate any real problems. Jerry Linenger wrote from Mir that “life in space is never monotonous.”

But, the kind of deprivation that most affected Mir astronauts was social deprivation—being away from one’s culture and family for such an extended period. Norm Thagard talked about missing his American cultural and linguistic environment. John Blaha said what he really missed most was his wife.

Deprivation of meaningful work—or, conversely, of refreshing rest—also affected the U.S. Mir astronauts. Norm Thagard had to wait for many of his science experiments to arrive, and the Russians did not allow him much interaction with Mir’s control systems. In the words of NASA psychologist Al Holland, “The situation of work underload is one of the worst situations you can ask a high-achieving, bright, interested astronaut to subject himself to.”

Other astronauts went many days without much rest, working mainly on menial tasks such as cleanup, when they weren’t working on their American science projects. Those experiments were very important to the American astronauts. Mike Foale said, “I loved the greenhouse experiment. It didn’t matter that the shrubs were tiny . . . I enjoyed being a bee pollinating plants.

I enjoyed looking at [the plants] every morning for about 10 to 15 minutes. It was a moment of quiet time, almost. It was a moment where it was nice and bright and almost sunny in a module [Kristall] that had no power for about two months.” Foale was dubbed “Farmer Foale” by the ground-based science team for his persistence in keeping the plants alive under trying conditions.

Mir astronauts did engage in exercise and recreational activities. Shannon Lucid read books. John Blaha watched videos. Andy Thomas sketched.

With long-duration spaceflight, an astronaut does not have the freedom to go where he or she wants to, and when he or she wants to, and no one can “drop in” to see him or her. A spur-of-the-moment walk becomes a thing of the past—and, hopefully, of the future. Jerry Linenger wrote in a letter to his son, “A simple walk would be fine. Or a paddle in the canoe. Indoors won’t do. Need fresh air. Need to feel a breeze . . . the sound of wind through the trees overhead.

Before Shuttle-Mir, the Russians had years of experience with long-duration spaceflight. They had developed rigorous methods of selecting Mir crews and were able to give their selected crews psychological training. General Yuri Glaskov, Deputy Commander at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, described one of the training methods. He said, “We put our crew members into . . . an isolation chamber. I had to myself be in this chamber for 14 days.

It is called . . . ‘alone in public.’ Everybody is watching you, but you can’t see anybody. There are certain psychological nuances there because you fight yourself.”

Glaskov also experienced a 35-day ground test of the Mir orbital station. He said, “At that time, there were two of us; but the hatches were closed, and we were absolutely alone for 35 days. This experience created different problems. Here, we had to tolerate each other, forgive each other, and supplement each other’s faults or experiences. . . . One person doesn’t like certain traits of another [person], and so you have to learn to adapt to each other.”

NASA’s Shuttle-Mir astronauts were basically volunteers. While that eliminated the value of a selection process, it did give NASA psychological scientists the opportunity to observe—and to support—a range of personalities during the seven-mission program. NASA Psychologist Al Holland said, “It’s really probably good that we weren’t allowed to do selection in our usual manner beforehand, but we had to work with the people who were assigned to us to fly—because in that way we learned a lot more.”

NASA’s “flight docs” and managers worked to make the Mir astronauts’ missions as normal as possible, with things like weekly talks with family and friends; “surprise packages” coming up on Progress resupply vehicles; ham radio conversations with friends, family, and even strangers; and the crew on-orbit support system, a laptop computer and compact disks that included items such as special greetings that were timed to coincide with an astronaut’s birthday.

So, what was learned about psychology during the Shuttle-Mir experience? In the opinion of both the Russian crewmembers and American astronauts who served during Shuttle-Mir, greater attention needs to be given to matters of the psychological compatibility of crewmembers. For this, a longer training period should be carried out for each crew. And, joint training sessions for survival under extreme conditions would also help.

Holland pointed to the entire supporting organization. “One of the things that was astounding to me was that, traditionally, we had this focus on the individual. . .. We were thinking that’s where you need to put your effort. In the Mir series, what was so striking was the influence of the organizational policies and the organizational context on the individual’s psychological health. . .. There were just so many organizational lessons that were learned . . . in terms of policies and procedures,” he said.

“Basically, NASA had to learn how to deploy people and their families, and [to] make sure that people got back and forth without a lot of problems. NASA’s not like the military. It never had before deployed people for long periods of time in foreign countries, so there was no infrastructure at all to do that. We just gave them a ticket and sent them over there.”

Here is an update based on follow up with Astronauts (added on Match 17, 2018) Astronaut’s DNA no longer matches that of his identical twin, NASA finds.

Here is a related blog: Gene Cernan – The Last Man To Walk On The Moon

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