Astronauts have a cool demeanor and good people-skills,
but six months in a tiny spaceship with the same crewmates can drive
anyone to distraction.
by Karen Miller
"Once, I was evaluating
astronaut applicants," says psychiatrist Nick Kanas. "I asked them
to give me some examples of things that might cause stress." One
applicant, a test pilot, recalled the time he was flying an experimental
aircraft and it spun out of control. As the plane spiraled down,
he took out his manual, calmly thumbed through it, and figured out
how to pull the plane to safety. "His ability to temporarily control
his emotions was very striking," laughs Kanas.
Astronauts manage stress
a whole lot better than most of us. They have to because there's
always some hazard looming: radiation storms, space debris, the
possibility of crashing--or just a new list of things to do from
ground control. It all adds up.
And then there's the
stress that comes from dealing with other people.
Space crews must live
and work together in close quarters 24-hours a day, sometimes for
months on end. They're also far from home and family, which means
they can feel both lonely and crowded at the same time. It's enough
to drive anyone to distraction.
Space Station crewmates Valery Korzun (right), Peggy Whitson
(middle) and Sergei Treschev (left). Space station crews
typically spend 4 to 6 months in orbit together
a professor of psychiatry at the University of California and the
Veteran's Hospital in San Francisco, is studying the way astronauts
behave under these demanding conditions. His research began with
the shuttle-Mir program in the 1990's, and now he's working with
the crew of the International Space Station. As part of the project,
called Crewmember and Crew-ground
Interactions during International Space Station Missions,
astronauts and cosmonauts answer weekly questionnaires for Kanas
about their moods, feelings and daily lives in orbit.
Earlier studies have
already uncovered some interesting behaviors.
For example: Like that
test pilot, many of those who go into space are able to suppress
their emotions when they need to. That's a valuable trait, not only
for astronauts but also for, say, surgeons and fire fighters, because
it helps get things done.
"The problem," says
Kanas, "is if you suppress your emotions for months on end, it can
wear you down." The trick is to be able to suppress your emotions
when you're in crisis, but then to relax enough to experience your
feelings when things aren't so stressful.
Astronauts in general
tend to be skilled at knowing when to suppress their feelings and
when to deal with them. "It's just that sometimes, [in space] they're
under so much pressure they find it difficult to relax," he says.
When that happens,
astronauts tend to socialize with each other less and less. After
months of being together, they can grow tired of hearing one another's
stories. Tension mounts. One way of relieving that tension is by
blaming mission control.
This is called "displacement"
and it's a very common way to deal with stress. People do it all
the time, for example by yelling at their kids instead of their
boss. Displacement provides the short-term benefit of relieving
tension. But it hurts the family, and it doesn't deal with the problem.
"We found that when
crew members reported being under stress, those were the times that
they perceived a lack of support from the ground." Likewise, when
mission control was under stress, they tended to perceive a lack
of support from management. Displacement again. In the long run
displacement is toxic because it lets the real problems fester.
Problems that arise
during a few-month stint on the ISS are likely to be even worse
during a mission to Mars. A Mars crew will be away for about three
years and during that time they're going to be astonishingly isolated.
Any psychological problem that comes up, they'll need to handle
on their own. "The more training we can give them, the better,"
Research suggests that
the moods of astronauts might change in a predictable pattern over
the course of a long mission. In Antarctic expeditions, for example,
some studies found a blip of depression about midway through. "The
conventional thinking," says Kanas, "is that on a long term mission,
you work your way through the first half, you get to the half-way
point, you say, 'Wow, I made it to the half-way point' and then
you say, 'but wait! I've got another half to go." And then a temporary
depression may set in." If that pattern holds in space, astronauts
on a journey to Mars will need to be aware of, and expect, it.
The kind of support
that the astronauts will need from their commander might also change
as the mission progresses. For example, scientists have found that
at the beginning of an expedition, the leaders rated most highly
were those who were task-oriented, and got things done. But later,
the most appreciated leaders were those that focused on morale,
on how people felt.
"We need to train the
commanders to think about that, so they can emphasize that aspect
of their leadership at the appropriate time."
Kanas's ongoing study
will lead to a greater understanding of these patterns. "This is
the basic science of group behavior," he says. "It's all the kind
of stuff that affects humans relating in any environment, but it's
brought out more strongly because in space, people are isolated,
confined, and under more pressure." His findings will certainly
aid fire fighters, police officers, doctors in emergency rooms--anyone
in a high-stress environment.
And they might even
help the rest of us who cope with more mundane problems. Maybe you'll
never need to dodge a piece of space debris or pull a malfunctioning
airplane out of a spin. But, at some point, you'll probably have
to take your kids to a mall!