I was so interested in the topic of the psychological aspects of long space missions that I decided to do a little more research to find real-world examples, and see if it as much of an issue as it is portrayed in “Sunshine.”
In August 2008, psychologists from the American Psychological Association met for their 116th annual convention. One of the topics discussed was the issues that astronauts will face on longer future space missions, especially to Mars. Psychologists stated that astronauts are highly likely to face depression and interpersonal conflicts when they are away from Earth for a long time. This directly correlates to the conflicts between astronauts Mace and Capa, as well as Trey’s suicide.
Prior to the conference, not much attention or concern had been pointed towards astronauts’ mental health, in part due to the idea that they were viewed as strong and intelligent—and therefore somehow immune to psychological problems. Additionally, astronauts were deterred from expressing any form of mental distress, for they were afraid of being grounded.
Currently, psychologists and scientists are developing a series of computer programs that astronauts are able to interact with to prevent astronauts from subsuming psychological distress. Named the Virtual Space Station, it is designed to help astronauts cope with the psychological and social challenges implicated in extended missions. Another way to ensure that individuals maintain mental health is by providing communication between the spacecraft and Earth. During interviews of astronauts who embarked on previous missions, many expressed feelings of isolation while on the mission, and how important it is that NASA helps ensure that they have a sort of home away from home. The Virtual Space Station is already being tested on scientists working for long periods of time in Antarctica.
I also found it interesting that researchers are looking back to the past to help improve conditions for future explorations. For example, old journals and logs from individuals who embarked on journeys across the sea into the unknown are being reviewed in order to see how they dealt with emotions such as isolation, uncertainty, and continuous contact with crew members. At first, I thought that this was a strange way of gathering information, but it makes sense. Just like astronauts who are venturing into unknown territories (probably one day Mars), explorers also had no idea what to expect or if they would return.
I also found that prolonged weightlessness in space also influences astronauts’ behavior. Though these are directly related to physical functions, such as eating and sleeping, the altering of these two things, along with stress, could cause mental imbalance.
I think that, though overlooked, research on psychology in space is important, especially since NASA is planning on launching a trip to Mars in the future. There is no specific timetable, in part due to the economy, but a decision on rocket architecture will be made in the year 2015.