While space farers aboard the crippled Mir space station struggle to keep their ship and psyches intact, a San Francisco-based team of psychiatric investigators is watching them closely.
As part of a four-year NASA-funded study, the psychotherapists are monitoring how American astronauts, Russian cosmonauts and their ground crew get along during this tense, danger-filled mission.
In space, “we have a wonderful laboratory for looking at how people interact with each other in a closed system - people of different cultures, different languages, who are put together to do a job,” said team leader Dr. Nick Kanas, a professor of psychiatry at UCSF and assistant chief of the mental health service at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in San Francisco.
Every week, the space crew and members of the ground crew fill out psychological questionnaires. The lengthy questionnaires - in English and Russian - ask participants to rate their personal moods over the preceding week in numerous categories. For example, have they felt friendly? Grouchy? Spiteful? Bewildered? Terrified? They rate themselves on a 1 to 5 scale, with 1 meaning “Not at all” and 5 meaning “Extremely.”
They also answer “True” or “False” to a series of 66 hypothetical statements about crew members as a whole. For example: “People in the group sometimes yell at each other.”
Such information is especially vital now because NASA and the space agencies of Russia, Japan and Europe plan to build and occupy an international space station late this decade - a sort of Swiss village in space, with numerous languages and dialects echoing down the metal hallways.
NASA officials also are talking more and more openly about their dream of sending an international team of astronauts to Mars, perhaps as early as 2010 if Congress agrees. Because Mars is tens of millions of miles away, hundreds of times as far as the moon, the mission probably would last a few years.
Hence, it’s vital to find astronauts who can thrive for years in a cramped, weightless environment. They must be able to endure each other’s idiosyncrasies - telling dumb jokes and leaving one’s smelly socks floating around the exercise room - without splitting into gossipy factions like high school kids or resorting to fistfights like old-time sailors.
Psychological issues have taken on new urgency in recent weeks as U.S. and Russian space officials watch Mir commander Vasily Tsibliyev and his crew members, Alexander Lazutkin and the American astronaut Michael Foale. This year, Mir has suffered one near-disaster after another, including a fire, a collision with an unmanned supply vehicle, and the accidental unplugging of a power cable that temporarily left the crew in the dark.
Some news media have questioned Tsibliyev’s state of mind. He complained of heart problems and has had to take sedatives. The Russian mission control boss himself said of the Mir situation: “It’s a kindergarten up there.”
But in interviews, several psychological experts close to the space program said it was unfair to bash Tsibliyev. The real problem, they said, is the Mir, an aging, broken-down war horse of a space station that might break the spirit of the hardiest adventurers.
A related problem, one expert said, is the male-oriented, macho culture of spaceflight, which discourages frank discussion of personal problems.
“I think the commander is probably one of the few sane people in this scenario, because he’s saying, ‘I’m stressed! I need help!’ … This is a cosmonaut telling you he’s stressed, and these guys never say that!” said Dr. Patricia Santy, a former NASA flight surgeon and author of the 1994 book “Choosing the Right Stuff: The Psychological Selection of Astronauts and Cosmonauts.”
She’s concerned that space officials won’t learn anything, psychologically, from the Mir crisis because they will blame Tsibliyev’s troubles on “a heart problem.”
“He doesn’t have a heart problem; he had a problem with anxiety,” said Santy, now assistant dean of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.
Psychological problems could endanger crews on future missions, Santy said. Yet “witness the lack of money (NASA) put in psychological and social research. How can you do research when the attitude is: ‘We never have problems’? I blame that on the culture at NASA.”
The potential risks are chilling. As far back as 1990, Kanas pointed out in an article for Journal of Spacecraft, other researchers’ studies of nuclear submariners had found a 5 percent incidence of anxiety, depression and “psychotic reactions” aboard a Polaris submarine. With that terrestrial experience in mind, Kanas, 51, says NASA should be prepared to provide ways to handle a “psychotic” crew member, including medications or devices “similar to a straitjacket.”
These precautions would be worthwhile since a psychotic reaction during a long-term space mission would jeopardize the mission, Kanas wrote in 1990.
Meanwhile, the current Mir occupants’ mission aboard their orbital haunted house is winding down. On Aug. 7, a spaceship is scheduled to arrive with a replacement crew, which will repair and renovate the severely damaged facility.
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