There is danger during space missions—danger such as the potential for equipment to break down or a micrometeoroid attack. The effects of a microgravity environment cause bone loss, atrophy of muscles, and fluid shifts. Radiation is also heightened, especially beyond the Van Allen belt, which deflects most radiation away from Earth. According to esteemed space psychologist Nick Kanas, MD, these perils affect crewmembers psychologically in a number of ways.
|Mission to Mars:
What Psychological Stressors Might Your Encounter?
With Nick Kanas, MD
|Bradley Cannon, Psi Chi Writer/Journal Managing Editor
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For example, crewmembers face the notion of being in a weightless environment where they have some problems maneuvering around, their faces are all puffy, and they experience many other changes in their bodies such as bulging of the optic nerve. Monotony and separation from family and friends exist, and crewmembers have the same people around them a lot, which can lead to stress as well. As challenging as this all sounds, Dr. Kanas says, “These are only some of the psychological stressors to expect, especially on a long-duration mission, such as a mission to Mars.”
Meet Dr. Kanas
For 15 years, Dr. Kanas was a NASA-funded principal investigator, first doing psychological research on astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the Russian Mir space station for approximately seven years and then conducting a follow-up study for about the same amount of time on astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS). He is the author of more than 200 professional publications including his most recent book, Humans in Space: The Psychological Hurdles. This book pulls together everything he has learned about space psychology over the last 50+ years into one readable entity for the public. It received the 2016 International Academy of Astronautics Life Science Book Award.
Dr. Kanas has also extrapolated his and others’ research through three science fiction novels published with Springer. These include The New Martian, about a six-person crew returning from Mars, The Protos Mandate, about an interstellar, multigenerational mission spanning 107 years, and The Caloris Network, about a crew traveling to Mercury to discover the source of a mysterious signal.
Dr. Kanas sees himself as sort of a space cadet, explaining that he watched space shows and read a lot of science fiction when he was a boy. He says, “I remember going out to look at Sputnik coming over Portland, Oregon when I was 12. I could see the flashing light, probably not of Sputnik itself, but of the stage of the rocket that was close to it. Then, somebody had a telescope nearby, so I went over and got my first look at Saturn through a telescope. I became really interested in space.”
Although many people are “interested” in space, few go on to become a teaching assistant for a summer space biology institute at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine. After that, in his own words, “One thing led to another, and then the opportunities opened up in the 90s when NASA started getting interested in crew interaction and behavior. At that time, I had already done some work on space psychology funded by the European Space Agency, as well as in group therapy research with patients, so I was used to studying small groups of people interacting under stressful conditions.”
Psychological Support for Crewmembers
An amateur astronomer for nearly 60 years, Dr. Kanas sits in his den, surrounded by old prints of celestial astronomical themes. When asked to provide a little background of psychological support in space, he faces some signed photographs of astronauts he has met during his career, such as Fred Haise, Millie Hughes-Fulford, and Valery Polyakov.
He says, “The Russians really pioneered psychological support for crewmembers. Even as far back as the 1980s, they had a team that listened to communications 24/7 to determine how the cosmonauts were doing and intervene if necessary to talk to them or ask if they needed any support.”
“However, it was not so easy to communicate back then because they didn’t have satellite relays,” he continues. “They couldn’t really speak to their families very often, but when they did, the psychological support team would increase the frequency of communication with families, as well as with famous movie stars and sports heroes. This gave the cosmonauts a sense of importance, novelty, and the opportunity to talk to somebody other than to each other. They also often received surprise presents such as guitars, letters from home, and things like that.”
The Americans, he adds, built a psychological support program too. “It is now common for space programs to have 24/7 psychological support, so people can talk to family and friends when they wish, receive surprise gifts sent up on orbit, and also get counselling if they need it. If someone gets a little despondent, they can talk to a counselor.”
The space environment has a full complement of psychoactive medications that crewmembers can take. That is sometimes needed, he explains, but usually just talking can help.
Another big support mechanism for crewmembers is seeing Earth. Dr. Kanas conducted a study of 39 astronauts who had flown in space to ask them about positive factors of being in space. None of these factors were significant in terms of changes in their attitudes, except for seeing Earth. That one, he says, led to many thoughts such as
||humans are one,
||there are no natural boundaries between people,
||Earth is a beautiful orb, and
||we are all lucky to live there.
He says, “Many astronauts said that they did some public service as a result of the experience of seeing Earth in all of its beauty, and realizing that humans are really one species and should get along better. They became more humanitarian in their outlook on people. Seeing Earth served as a profound psychological influence to the astronauts.”
He pauses before starting into the primary topic of today’s interview. “Unfortunately, these positive or support factors will not be present in a long-duration mission to Mars.”
The Psychological Stressors of Long-Duration Space Travel
1. Communication delays. As Dr. Kanas already indicated, astronauts have become very dependent upon the ability to communicate with family, friends, and Mission Control in real time. “Right now, astronauts can talk to ground control through satellite links whenever they want, and often they can talk to people at home too. During free time, they can just dial up their family for a private conversation.”
“However, going to Mars, you have a long, long way to go—tens of millions of miles. At that distance, even with signals traveling at the speed of light, there are significant communication delays. For example, if you are on Mars when Mars is on one side of the sun and Earth is on the other in their orbits, you might ask ‘How is everybody down there?’ but you won’t get an answer back until 40 minutes later. This creates a sense of being really far away.”
The average two-way time delay between Mars and Earth, he says, will be 25 minutes. What this means is that crewmembers can’t talk to people in real time to deal with emergencies. Nor can they carry out ordinary conversations with family, friends, or counselors. They can’t receive surprise presents either because it would take seven months for resupply to occur. “So all of the helpful countermeasures to dealing with the stress of isolation and confinement away from family are taken away on a Mars mission. Therefore, we need to look at other supportive activities to help these astronauts deal with their situation.”
One countermeasure he suggests is to train crewmembers to increase their efficiency in communications. Basically, this involves not only asking open-ended questions, but also specifics to convey as much information as they can, and then responding and asking for further questions in return.
For example, a crewmember might send an e-mail to his wife saying, “Hello dear. How are you? What’s going on?” In addition to these open-ended questions, he might also ask more specific demand questions at the end of the communication such as, “How is Jane doing with her prom dress? How is Charlie doing with his sports activities? How is your mom doing with her sickness? Is she getting better? What about the loan we wanted to buy the car?”
Then, 25 or so minutes later, he might get a response back from his wife saying, “Fine dear. Everything is great. I am feeling happy. The house is looking good. Jane has bought her prom dress; how much do you think we can spend for her limousine? Charlie is enjoying being on the football team, but he feels like he wants to improve his academics, so he is studying harder. What do you think about getting a tutor? Mother is doing better and is out of the hospital. The loan has come through. What do you think about maybe adding a room to our house? Should we get another loan?”
Dr. Kanas says, “This sort of communication strategy is going to take a little work; right now, people mainly just ask open questions back and forth.”
2. Earth out of view. Dr. Kanas asks you to consider this: “People have always either been on Earth, under Earth, or in space close enough to see Earth as a beautiful, round ball without boundaries. But from Mars, Earth will appear like no more than an insignificant dot. Yes, a telescope can help you see it, but only as it was 10 to 15 minutes earlier than your current time. That is really not the same.”
Because of this, Dr. Kanas and his colleague Dr. Dietrich Manzey wrote years ago about something called, Earth-out-of-view phenomenon. This refers to the notion that “because humans have never, ever experienced Earth as an insignificant dot in the heavens, the psychological ramifications of this experience are really unknown.”
“One of the countermeasures to test the effects of Earth-out-of-view phenomenon,” he recommends, “would be to provide a telescope or some sort of virtual reality system where crewmembers can see Earth or experience what it is like to see Earth virtually. For a Mars mission, I think that might help crewmembers deal with the sense of loneliness that seeing Earth as an insignificant dot causes.”
3. Increased autonomy. Current missions are primarily controlled from the ground in terms of the schedule. However, astronauts have the ability to do some activities on their own. Dr. Kanas gives this example: “There is a job jar on the ISS, so if someone has some free time, he or she can pick a job such as conducting a study or some experiment to fill the time.”
Thus, there is some flexibility. However, on a Mars mission, Dr. Kanas expects that the crew would be more autonomous. He says, “They will not be directed much from the ground because of the time delay, so they will have to plan their own schedules, and they will do what they want. Mission Control will mainly have a broad overreaching effect, but not a day-by-day, time-by-time effect as is the case for on-orbit missions.”
“This will create a whole different environment,” he explains. “Some colleagues and I studied autonomy in three space simulation environments on Earth, and the crewmembers seemed to like being autonomous, such as having the ability to plan their own schedule rather than having to be dependent upon the ground.” Thus, autonomy seems acceptable so far, but Dr. Kanas believes that more research should be conducted on this area.
4. Intercultural crewmembers. Dr. Kanas expects that crews going to Mars will be heterogeneous, with men, women, and people from different cultures. “This is because a long-term space mission will be expensive, so it will probably involve a consortium of countries adding money and resources to pull it off. These countries will, of course, want to have representatives of their own people there. For example, on a six- or seven-person Mars mission, I expect that the crew will draw from Americans, Russians, Chinese, Europeans, Canadians, Japanese, and people from all around represented in some way, probably based on how much they spend on a mission.”
“That intercultural situation will probably be very positive in the long run because it enables people with different backgrounds and interests to interact with each other during the long periods.” However, in the short run, he warns that caution is needed because different cultural groups expect different things.
“For example, a person who is used to small spaces might get into the comfort zone of another who is used to a more extended body space. Or, people who maneuver a lot with their hands might feel less constrained doing that, although people who are not so elaborate in their motions might see this as a sign of aggression. These cultural differences could create problems and should be worked out before launch.”
5. Displacement. During Dr. Kanas’s studies, he and his colleagues found evidence suggesting the occurrence of displacement. At the group level, he defines this as “the tendency of people in a group who can’t resolve interpersonal tensions with each other to transfer these tensions to someone else outside of the group who is completely innocent and just happens to be safe and available.”
An example of displacement he gives is when an employee cannot “tell off” a boss for being a jerk, so the employee goes home and yells at a family member instead. In his studies, he says, “The weeks when there were high levels of tension between crewmembers were the same weeks that the crewmembers perceived Mission Control as not being very supportive or helpful, so we feel that they were displacing the tension onboard outwardly to the ground.”
“However, it will be difficult for crewmembers to displace their emotions during a Mars mission because they won’t be talking to the ground very much. Thus, it is important that any tension between the crewmembers be resolved among them before it festers and causes fights, territorial behavior, or the crew to split up and not be very cohesive. For example, we are recommending that, built into the Mars mission, there be training for the crew to look for sources of tension, and also time that they be scheduled to sit down and ask each other, ‘How are we doing? What problems are we having?’ so that they can work out any issues to relieve the pressure internally.”
Going to Mars
Dr. Kanas estimates that there are three potential “showstoppers” for such a long-duration mission in space. First are the effects of microgravity on the body. About this, he says, “We already know people can tolerate 14 months in microgravity. We think that they can probably tolerate the 7-month outbound and 7-month return phases of a Mars mission, but we don’t know if time spent in the 38% Earth gravity on Mars will be restorative on the body.”
The second showstopper is radiation, which becomes much stronger when crewmembers leave Earth’s environment, requiring them to have adequate shielding. The “shielding situation,” he explains, “is still being examined.”
The third showstopper are the psychological aspects. There are even more of these than the ones that have already been discussed, such as dealing with medical and psychiatric emergencies and the lack of social novelty. In addition to the effects that crewmembers experience onboard, they also face extreme challenges with reintegration into society after missions and sometimes must learn to handle newfound fame and glory. They are often expected to travel a lot and give presentations, which they may not be used to.
Preparing for These Challenges
Dr. Kanas strongly believes that there is a need to conduct more studies simulating the outbound and return phases of a mission to Mars. Preferably, these studies should take place for six or seven months on a real space station with microgravity and other real dangers, simulating progressive communication delays with the ground, and more crewmember autonomy.
The best ground-based simulator to date for the psychological and interpersonal issues of a Mars mission was the Mars 500 Project. This was a 520-day simulation in Moscow where six people were confined in a series of containers and simulated going to Mars. The study included built-in time delays for communication with the outside, autonomy, and an area where participants could put on a spacesuit and pretend that they were on the martian surface.
“That kind of a simulation is pretty good because it simulated a lot of the psychological and interpersonal factors, as well as some of the operational and engineering factors that are needed.” However, he adds, not even the best simulators are able to capture all of the psychological aspects of long-duration space travel. “For example, you don’t get microgravity in any groundbased simulators. And crewmembers do not experience real danger and irreversible commitment. If somebody wants to go leave, they knock on the door, say, ‘I quit being a subject,’ and go home.”
Another good ground-based simulator that does involve danger is the Antarctic. There, he says, participants are isolated during the course of a year, especially during the wintering over when people are confined indoors and storms cause communication problems and make it difficult for planes to fly in with supplies. “In some ways, people in the Antarctic are more isolated than astronauts are. But the problem with the Antarctic is that the older missions were better simulators because the crews were smaller and experienced more danger. These days, the American Antarctic base has some 30 or 40 people during the wintering over and more than 100 during the summer, so it is more like a small town than a six-person crew going to Mars.”
Some submersibles have been used as effective simulators too, where people would go under the water in an oxygenated container and then float out into the water to do aquatic science and experience wearing a suit for oxygen and moving in reduced gravity.
But to him, the most effective way to expose new psychological issues and help understand the effects of a mission to Mars is clear. “We need to have a real crew simulate a trip to Mars by landing on the moon, an asteroid, or some other space body where they can be in a partial gravity environment, tapping on real rocks and going outside in a spacesuit for a period of time to get a feel of what that might be like. Then, they need to return to the space station to simulate the return phase of the journey.”
The Marvels of Space
Despite the countless dangers, it is no wonder that Dr. Kanas and many others have become fascinated by these missions, which undoubtedly play a big role in humanity’s sense of adventure, patriotism, and one day—who knows?—perhaps even our continued existence as a species. In this spirit, we conclude today’s interview by asking Dr. Kanas to describe what it was like when he once experienced the thrill of true weightlessness.
This once-in-a-lifetime encounter occurred aboard a genuine loop-the-loop, “vomit-comet” mission, which he got permission to ride while he was still a student working at Johnson Space Center. About the flight, he says, “The plane made about 20 giant parabolas in the sky. As it made an arc and began its descent, we were weightless for about 30 seconds to allow the astronauts on board to practice a weightless docking maneuver. For me, it was really kind of fun, like when you are on a rollercoaster and your body rises up against the straps just as you go over a fast hill. It was like that except that it lasted longer, and I literally floated up, up into the air.”
Would Dr. Kanas go on a long-duration mission if given the opportunity? Not when he was younger. But now that his children have grown up, he chuckles, “I don’t have 20 million dollars to pay for it like some space tourists have done on trips to the ISS. But I would certainly be tempted to go for free if the trip wasn’t too long.”
Nick Kanas, MD, is an Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. For over 35 years, he conducted research on people under stress. He is the recipient of the Dr. J. Elliott Royer Award for academic psychiatry. Since 1970, he has studied and written about psychological and interpersonal issues affecting people living and working in space. He is a member and former trustee of the International Academy of Astronautics. Together with Dietrich Manzey, he is the coauthor of the textbook entitled Space Psychology and Psychiatry (2nd ed.), which was given the 2004 International Academy of Astronautics Life Science Book Award. In 1999, Dr. Kanas received the Aerospace Medical Association Raymond F. Longacre Award for Outstanding Accomplishment in the Psychological and Psychiatric Aspects of Aerospace Medicine. In 2008, he received the International Academy of Astronautics Life Science Award.
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