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How Astronauts Get Along

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.


International 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

Kanas, 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," notes Kanas.

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!


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First Science 2014