Addressing Psychological Challenges for Space Exploration

Addressing Psychological Challenges for Space Exploration

Addressing Psychological Challenges for Space Exploration


By Leonard Momeny
Alumnus, Space Studies, American Military University

Psychological issues are not something that many of us would ever attribute to an astronaut. Just saying the word astronaut suggests a hardened test pilot or brave modern explorer, not someone facing a psychological issue or challenge. After all, astronauts are always characterized as heroic, intelligent, independent, and capable of accomplishing any task given to them.

Astronauts have come to be known as people who represent the very best that our culture has to offer. Everyone seeking to become an astronaut is thoroughly screened to ensure that they will not be affected by significant psychiatric problems. However, screening only scratches the surface of the psychological concerns that await members of space exploration teams who will ultimately venture to the moon and beyond.

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Just because a potential space explorer or planetary colonizer has been thoroughly screened does not mean that he or she is somehow less susceptible to problems. Astronauts, as strong as they may be, can experience interpersonal conflicts, depression, anxiety and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Some astronauts, in fact, have wrestled with anxiety and even severe depression. This does not always occur during the mission, sometimes these issues arise once the astronaut is back on Earth. Considering that most astronauts do not simply go into space once, but instead are needed for vital jobs on Earth as well, it is in everyone’s best interest to address such challenges. In fact, one of the most notable astronauts in history, Buzz Aldrin, battled severe depression following his return from the moon.

The Impact of the Time Factor

Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and even Space Shuttle missions were short for astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent 340 days aboard the International Space Station (ISS) in 2015-2016 with Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko. Today a standard mission aboard the ISS has astronauts living in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) for about six months. Life onboard the space station may seem grand, but in truth, it is incredibly challenging especially when monotony takes over. How will astronauts handle even greater monotony during a future moon or Mars mission, or even a long duration colonization effort on Mars?

During the Mir space station missions, Soviet psychologists discovered that cosmonauts were happy and productive for the first two months in space. After those two months, scientists began to notice that the cosmonauts became bored with their work. Eventually, some of these explorers became anxious, hallucinatory and irritable.

In “Rocket Men: The Epic History of the First Men on the Moon,” author Craig Nelson quotes

Cosmonaut Valeri Ryumin as saying: “All the conditions for murder are met if you shut two men in a cabin measuring eighteen feet by twenty and leave them together for two months.”

Clearly it is not natural for people to be locked away in a confined area for long periods of time. This will definitely be a challenge that future space explorers will have to overcome on their way to the moon and eventually Mars.

How Will Bouts of Anxiety Be Treated?

Anxiety is typically associated when someone feels worried about some task or action. Anxiety in astronauts is not typical, but it is not hard to understand that when fatigue and high work levels come together anxiety could become an issue.

One of the most notable moments of an astronaut dealing with anxiety occurred during the Mir 23 mission. Commander Vasili Tsibliyev encountered accidents, close calls, a hectic work schedule, and even a fire in space. All of these incidents led to extreme physical problems associated with anxiety.

So far, methods to deal with anxiety during space flights have been effective in reducing sources of anxiety on the ISS. Anxiety preventative methods include the management of astronauts’ work schedules and required downtime. During the highly publicized mission of Commander Scott Kelly, great efforts were made to study and manage his workload and downtime balance. The results of those tests immediately affected the work at NASA. Those results no doubt will be confirmed and refined during Astronaut Christina Koch’s current mission which was recently extended to 328 days. That will make her space flight the longest ever by a female astronaut.

Two things are likely to cause astronauts to experience depression. The first and most obvious is chronic isolation. That is something that travelers to Mars will surely encounter.

Jay C. Buckey, in his book, Space Physiology, notes: “Chronic frustration or a perceived inability to change or improve one’s situation can lead to depression.” A six- to nine-month voyage in space trip will certainly produce frustration among the crew at some point, especially when the craft begins its interplanetary course and there is no turning back. Constant updates with ground crews and activity monitoring are the best ways to ensure that the astronauts do not fall into troubling levels of depression. But communication between Earth and Mars, for example, is not exactly instantaneous. It can take about 14 minutes for a radio signal to make the one-way trip. Depression is not something long-duration crew members can afford to experience because every crew member has specific tasks to perform and thus is vitally important to the mission.

The most damaging psychological challenge among astronauts is the dynamic of interpersonal conflict, which cannot be avoided. Simply put, not everyone will always get along with everyone else all the time. Conflicts will arise even among the best of friends. According to Buckley, cross-cultural differences and male-female relationships within confined areas can occasionally stimulate extreme tension among isolated groups.

Compatibility has become far more important than it was during previous astronaut flights. Compatibility will play an important role in the selection of future space crews. Results from Mir missions showed that as flights became longer and longer, it was not the human body that was the limiting factor in deep space exploration; rather it was the mind.

Whether analyzing a person’s susceptibility to anxiety, depression or interpersonal conflicts, the key is not to attempt to treat the symptoms during the spaceflight but to focus on preventatives before the mission. It is important that potential astronauts be competent and accepting. Everyone aboard the spacecraft must be a team player. Analyzing cultural differences, personal histories, and team-building exercises during astronaut training can determine levels of personal cooperation/compatibility among crew members. It is critical that astronauts on deep space missions be able to relate well with their crewmates both professionally and casually.

About the Author

Leonard Momeny currently serves in the United States Army at the rank of CW4. For the last 16 years, he has served as a UH-60M Instructor Pilot. Leonard has an M.S. in Space Studies (Honors) from American Military University and has published with Army Aviation Digest, In Space News, Stars and Stripes and the Christian Education Journal.