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How astronauts deal with their mental health in space – from the ISS and beyond

When astronauts return to Earth, they often talk about the profound and impressive experiences they had when they looked back at our little blue planet. "All I know is that I was stunned in a completely unexpected way," NASA astronaut Nicole Stott told Inverse. "I felt connected," Mae Jemison recalls. "For me it was a connection to the earth. It was a connection with the rest of the universe. "

Known as the overview effect, this mental change of consciousness can have a major impact on astronauts when they first go into space. Although space flight can be amazing, exciting, and a dream come true for many astronauts, it is not without risk of adverse behavioral and psychological effects.

Whether an Astronaut Is Driving to the International Space Station (ISS) or its World Air Base On the way to Mars in a decade, space travel puts crews in an extreme environment with many unique stressors aboard. This can lead to homesickness, isolation, depression, boredom and conflicts with other crewmembers. Space flights are not just adventures in slender rockets ̵

1; astronauts are human beings after all.

Although the sanity of astronauts was less worrying in the early days of the space race, fortunately NASA, ESA and space agencies have switched to paid-for space flight, which has been suffering from mental well-being since the 1990s can.

And they have to be. Now NASA plans to send astronauts to Mars by 2030 (or not long afterwards). There is more reason to consider the health and well-being of the astronauts – a Mars mission will be longer and more exhausting than any other.

But how does that work? Space agencies make sure astronauts' well-being is paramount in such high-pressure missions that have never gone there?


Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov of the Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos), left, Russian cosmonaut Alexei Ovchinin of Roscosmos, Center and NASA astronaut Jeff Williams answer questions from the press outside the Soyuz simulator. (Credit: NASA; Bill Ingalls)

Beginning with Continuing

One way to ensure that astronauts are calm under pressure and well-versed in conflict is to select the most capable candidates.

Many of the people who make it as astronauts come from extremely stressful roles – pilots, doctors, engineers. They are often chosen because they can cope with stress and solve problems while they are under tremendous pressure.

"The knowledge of human psychology is so advanced that it is no longer a challenge to select the right people for a mission to Mars." wrote Stephen Petranek in How We Will Live on Mars. "We are very good at finding the right people to become professional pilots, Navy SEALs and others who are in critical positions where stress, judgment and intelligence meet."

According to a NASA Human Research Program (HRP) report, the Space Agency has conducted intensive psychiatric screening since 1959 to identify signs of mental illness that could jeopardize the success of a mission.

Those who find a behavioral or psychiatric problem likely to be on a flight are excluded from the selection process. This is called a "selection process". Conversely, those who are best suited to become astronauts are identified. This is called "Select-In".

Even those who make it as astronauts are routinely tested and rated. The report includes annual assessments conducted by a flight surgeon of the crew and a psychiatrist at the Johnson Medicine's Flight Medicine Clinic (JSC). They consist of "space flight experiences, workload, fatigue, sleep, peer relationships, family, challenges, goals, and future plans."

In the future, this process could be further streamlined. NASA is currently funding research to find out if certain biomarkers in the body of a potential astronaut can trigger an increased stress response or whether certain genes can signal disrupted sleep patterns. This means that one day the astronaut selection process may involve a DNA test.


This is HERA: a three-story habitat on Earth designed to show how isolation, containment and remote conditions can affect future missions. (Image credits: NASA / JSC)

There is no "I" in TEAM

It's not just about making sure that people are mentally healthy and well cared for, but how the whole crew works and lives – especially for long periods of time.

Gary Beven, a space psychiatrist at NASA, said to i9, "A misconception is a concern or theory that the space flight environment can be inherently harmful or dangerous from a psychological perspective."

He continued, "All previously reported health behavior problems appear to be due to frequent earthbound problems, such as placing crews with potential personality conflicts in a smaller space station with few recreational facilities."

This means that here on earth Space missions can be simulated to find out what causes conflict – and what can be done to prevent it from happening.

NASA is conducting an analogous mission called HERA here on Earth, four astronauts living in confined spaces for 45 days to find out How People Are Affected by Isolation and Captivity.

Although the missions at HERA have been over four years, Northwestern University researchers have begun to develop a predictive model that will help NASA anticipate problems among its crewmembers. The emphasis will be on the compatibility crew, incidents that lead to communication disruption, best team practices, and astronaut workflow design.

Similarly, the Hawaii Space Exploration Analogue and Simulation (HI-SEAS) runs longer mission simulations for a whole year in a 1,200 square meter habitat on the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii.

The fake astronauts live like on Mars. They are isolated, there is a delay in communication and there are showers that take seconds – they even have to put on spacesuits as they leave the airlock.

The HI-SEAS researchers have found that most crews end up fighting sometime during the experiment. However, there are also many opportunities to analyze why conflicts occur and to create a better recipe for success in the future.

Angelo Vermeulen, a space systems researcher on the team, said, "It all comes down to crew selection, you need to match skills and psychological compatibility, and you can quickly see if problems are developing by simply calling people for "If there will be problems, you'll usually see them," Vermeulen said. "There are no warranty issues that do not arise over a long period of time, but you should use one However, these simulated missions have been criticized, and it is difficult to say if all the psychological effects of space travel could ever be reproduced here on Earth – all participants know that they are still on the planet, there could be more room for concern in space, a Conversely, stress could be reduced as soon as an astronaut adapts to his new environment and realizes that he is on long-haul routes.


Astronaut Nick Hague of NASA lays his hands against the glass while his wife Catie does the same, before leaving 254 for the launch pad. (Image credits: NASA, Victor Zelentsov)

When Space Feels Lonely

NASA research suggests that social support is most effective if it matches what the astronaut feels is overwhelmed. In case of conflicts on board a conversation with the rest of the crew helps. However, if someone misses their children or spouse, it is most reassuring to speak directly with them. Fortunately, on board the ISS and other recent missions, the Internet Protocol (IP) phone is used regularly Connect astronauts with their friends and family.

Many astronauts also find sharing videos, experimenting, and creating a social media music video in space can counteract the feeling of isolation. A tweet may not be the same as an intimate conversation with close friends and family members, but it does make you feel and feel better connected to the earth – it trains, inspires, and entertains fans all over World.

As flights become longer, loneliness and homesickness are likely to be a bigger problem – especially as communication from Earth takes longer, which can be 45 minutes or more than an hour.

One option could be the use of Virtual Reality, which helps astronauts feel calmer and more connected to life in their homeland. NASA's Human Research Program (HRP) suggests replacing "virtual windows with current windows to replace the lost view of the earth" or using VR technology to create environments alongside actual plants to familiarize astronauts with to ground natural scenes.

  VR [19659041] NASA has been using VR for years to train astronauts. Mission specialists are preparing for a mission to the ISS from 2010 at the Johnson Space Center with the help of a headset and gloves. (Image credits: NASA) </p>
<h2 id= Stay calm and keep flying

In addition to solitude and improving living conditions at home, it is also important for astronauts to know how to deal with stress and other conditions that pave the way They could affect play and how they interact with other crew members.

A recent ISS solution is private psychological sessions with a psychiatrist that take place every two weeks for at least 15 minutes. This helps the experts to track changes in mood or stress levels and to recommend steps that can be taken, such as: Changes in sleep patterns, different types of work or longer downtime.

There is also research to identify the physical symptoms of stress before a problem arises. Researchers at the Polytechnic University of Florida are working on a so-called "happy suit" that can help astronauts feel better over long distances in space. According to Space.com, the suit is a network of wireless sensors that can respond to an astronaut's vital signs in real time, adjusting temperature, light, oxygen, and so on.

Arman Sargolzaei, assistant professor of electrical engineering at The School said in a statement: "It is important that astronauts are mentally healthy during their missions, and currently there is no active real-time solution to help them when they are stressed or stressed to feel anxious. " […] This technology would help them immediately In the future, other examples of wearable and AI technology could be used, such as: B. biometric sensors that can detect an increase in cortisol levels, or the face recognition technology that detects when a facial expression indicates stress response.

The Realities of Life on Mars

As flight times increase from months to years, researchers expect cases of behavioral and psychiatric problems. For a trip to Mars, crews have to live for years in tight and extreme environments. This is a big jump from the six-month lower Earth orbit missions for which most of the astronauts were selected.

The red planet is probably filled with conflicting emotions as well. The outward journey will take months and could be lonely – especially as the communication delay to Earth increases. There could be a lot of excitement about landing on Martian soil, coupled with concern about how far away the crew is from home. Then there is anticipation of returning home and getting back to normal life – that's a lot for even the most obsessed astronaut.

The best solution at the moment is ongoing research, more analogous studies and a continuous commitment to consistent care and rigorous processes. In this way, NASA and other space agencies can make informed predictions about how crews will perform during longer missions and set up all necessary support structures to ensure that they succeed.


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