Before Humanity Can Conquer the Stars, We Need to Deal With One Painfully Human Problem
Keeping astronauts mentally grounded during long-term spaceflight is a tall order — one that could make or break our galactic travels.
In space, boredom can be dangerous. Being millions of miles from home in an environment full of high-energy cosmic rays that can damage DNA, temperatures that will freeze you solid in a few hours, and a complete lack of support can get to you — especially when you have time to think about it. Which you do. After all, you’re traveling in space.
That slow drip of stress and fear, loneliness, and tedium can lead to anxiety and depression and, effectively, the loss of an essential crew member. As NASA requires astronauts to spend ever longer times away from planet Earth, the stuff that makes up a resilient astronaut — The Right Stuff for the 21st century — increasingly requires a mental toughness that you can’t train for by twirling around for hours a day on the aerotrim.
Michaela Musilova knows this especially well. An astrobiologist who has participated in dozens of missions in the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) program, Musilova has felt the (simulated) effects of being cut off from the world. “There are things that we do to make it really seem as if we're on another planet facing all the challenges people will likely face in the future,” Musilova tells Inverse. “You can only communicate by email with your loved ones, and you only have a certain amount of time during the day to do that.”
Psychological readiness has long been a factor used to measure an astronaut’s ability as a productive team member. While the negative effects of life on space astronauts’ physical health are well-researched and documented, research into how their mental health will fair on long-term space travel, such as a trip to Mars, is currently less well-studied. What we do know is this: We’ll never live in space as a species if we can’t deal with the impact long-term missions have on mental health. And we need to know more soon. By 2030, NASA’s Artemis mission plans to have long-term facilities on the moon, a long, lonely 238,000 miles away from the oceans, plants, and the people of Earth. How will we get there?
A facility in Hawaii currently testing potential astronauts' mental and physical space readiness may hold the answers.
The Loneliest Place In Human History
Located on the slope of Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano, the small, dome-shaped research station that comprises the HI-SEAS analog mission site has been a frequent spot to simulate the surface of both the Moon and Mars due to its unique location and geological similarity. With a cool, dry climate that doesn’t vary much over the year, the basaltic materials found on the site are similar to material found on Mars, making it a perfect spot for planetary mission research as well periodic “spacewalks” across the volcano.
Such missions have since become important test beds for future explorers to prepare for space exploration in a variety of ways and have given scientists much predictive insight into the psychology of people put in isolated, confined environments. They take the rigor of a space mission but offer a failsafe (being on Earth) that would be impossible on an interplanetary trip.
And just like life in space, resources and materials are strictly limited. Water, for instance, is so well-regulated that crew members are only able to shower about once every two weeks, and there’s also a 20-minute delay in communications from the Earth and “Mars”, forcing participants to experience the same lag in communications future space explorers would.
These spare conditions can often lead to extreme feelings among the crew, and as future explorers begin to embark on longer, more stressful missions, scientists are seeking ways to help future explorers combat and overcome circumstances that can lead to negative emotions like isolation and boredom.
To explore the risk of future astronauts' performance deteriorating when teams are unable to cooperate and communicate well, the HI-SEAS program conducted an eight-month-long Mars analog mission focused on identifying what psychological factors could be used to compose crews for autonomous and long-duration exploration missions. Some of these include having a diverse cultural or religious background, others may be how well a person communicates or empathizes with another.
Musilova, who has participated in dozens of these faux space missions, says it’s important that a crew create strong bonds before starting a mission together. Having empathy for one another in such a confined environment can many times decide the fate of the entire endeavor.
“There's usually a lot of interpersonal challenges in the crew, but also individual challenges of dealing with depression and isolation,” Musilova says.
Resilience in Space
For those who have been to space, loneliness can be as biting an experience in the cold expanse of space as it can on Earth. Separated and left unconnected from their families, friends, and support systems, many astronauts aboard the International Space Station have reported feeling extremely isolated or overwhelmed during their relatively short trips to space. (One 1999 study of 79 Space Shuttle-era missions revealed that 94 percent of astronauts were prone to using sleeping pills as a way to cope with poor sleep quality and motion sickness.)
Even people who’ve only been in orbit for a few minutes understand the feeling, as recently evidenced by William Shatner’s historic trip to space. After spending 10 minutes staring down at the swirling Earth, the 92-year-old Star Trek actor claimed the experience changed him profoundly. "It was among the strongest feelings of grief I have ever encountered,” Shatner said. “The contrast between the vicious coldness of space and the warm nurturing of Earth below filled me with overwhelming sadness."
This radical shift in emotion is called the overview effect, a common phenomenon reported by astronauts as experiencing a kind of perspective-shifting awe after seeing our planet from space.
While staying psychologically resilient in abnormal situations is a superpower on its own, there isn’t much to prove that it has an impact on astronauts’ performance and well-being, as previous research has often studied how dysfunctional personality traits and isolation intertwine. Still, NASA notes that battling bad feelings is all about eating healthy, getting good rest, and engaging in a variety of leisure activities.
When asked how he coped during his time away from home, astronaut Mark Vande Hei, who currently holds the record for the single longest spaceflight made by an American, said that he dealt with the mental challenges of his nearly year-long stay on the International Space Station by meditating daily.
While meditation is certainly one way to manage the mind, with the technology we currently have at our fingertips, a roundtrip to Mars will take years at best. The lack of available therapy sessions aside, if scientists want to keep astronauts relatively sane, they’ll need to find other ways to help them cope.
One of the most dynamic ways NASA plans to evaluate astronauts' ability to stay happy and healthy in space comes down to making the experience less unusual, says Albert W. Holland, a senior operational psychologist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
“We're putting normal people in an abnormal environment, Holland tells Inverse. “But we want to try to make that environment a little bit more normal.”
Part of the way to do that is with training on grounds like in Hawaii — or with virtual reality. NASA already makes use of VR in many ways — including using them to aid in real-time communications with loved ones on Earth and in technical training such as using it to control robotic arms, as a tool to increase the efficacy of exercise sessions, and for AR-guided maintenance assists. NASA is also currently exploring options to use it as both a recreational device and as a tool to boost crew morale. The agency could use it to simulate relaxing environments for astronauts and hopefully help ward off depression.
“VR is going to be a very important tool going forward,” Holland says. “It would be an important countermeasure to use VR to allow the person to take a sort of VR vacation.”
Holland, whose responsibilities also include helping with astronaut selection, psychological training, and other various kinds of in-flight and reintegration support, says that in addition to normalizing the experience, selecting the right crew members has a profound effect on an astronaut’s mental health.
“You're waking up every morning to the same faces, the same stories, and the same nuances of the very same people day after day,” Holland says. “Selection and screening, those are the best, most powerful countermeasures that we have to these sorts of stressors.”
Besides technical preparedness, there are a host of factors that go into deciding whether someone has the mental fortitude deemed necessary to carry out complex space missions. When astronauts apply to get into the program, candidates are run through a gamut of physical and psychological tests to discern if they’d be the right fit for missions planned years or sometimes decades in advance. These tests measure things like honesty and emotional stability, as well as how they perform under stressful conditions and group living situations.
Factors like gender, crew size, and personality types can play a large role in compatibility and crew dynamics, but according to Holland, NASA mainly selects individuals who will not only fulfill a mission’s needs but exhibit characteristics such as good judgment, leadership, teamwork, and resiliency when dealing with the unexpected — each measured through a variety of candidacy evaluations. And as the realm of space exploration becomes more socially and culturally diverse, space agencies must also prepare to contend with the potential for interpersonal conflict or tension between crew members from different countries and backgrounds.
Many of the countermeasures NASA has to combat mental strain follow a bit more hands-on approach. One strategy includes having crew members cultivate a space garden, as cultivating vegetables offers astronauts a sensory experience from Earth and can enhance their diet. Another strategy has crew members participate in activities that engage the mind, like learning a new language or medical skills.
The Near-Distant Future of Mental Health In Space
Today, NASA’s Artemis program is well on its way to helping humans explore more of the lunar surface than ever before and, perhaps even more importantly, taking the first of many steps to establish a permanent presence there. In this decade, astronauts may be expected to live on the surface of the moon for a week to
This is not yet long-term habitation, and the moon is not Mars — it’s 100 times closer to Earth, for starters. But it is a barren and bleak land with a surface temperature reaching 250 degrees Fahrenheit (120 C) during the day and -208 degrees F (-130 C) at night, a lack of gravity that can be a strain on those of us used to Earth’s pull and a dusty unchanging pockmarked surface that isn’t exactly an explorer’s dream. In other words, the mental strains will be clear and present, and mental resilience will certainly be a key factor in who gets the opportunity to travel back and forth from a bustling space center.
Still, this next generation of astronauts will likely find comfort in Earth’s proximity. But plans for further deep space trips are just over the horizon. To get there, space agencies may find their true final frontier is not deep into space but deep inside our minds.
THE FUTURE OF MENTAL HEALTH takes a deep dive into the technologies that may transform the way we think about and address mental health and where humanity could go if we succeed. Read the rest of the stories here.