NASA Looks to Keep Astronauts from Going Stir Crazy on Long Missions
Written by nbcnews.com
You can probably imagine taking a month-long road trip across the U.S. with five other people in a Winnebago. It’d be a little cramped and you’d likely get on each other’s nerves, but at least you’d get to stop for breaks, eat at diners, jump in lakes, and maybe even take pictures at the Grand Canyon.
Now imagine driving in that packed van for six months straight. You can’t stop at all to stretch or pick up roadside snacks. You can’t open the window for fresh air. And every time you ask Waze for new directions, it takes 40 minutes to get a new map.
That’s similar to the journey the first astronauts who head to Mars will face. Living on the red planet presents its own myriad challenges, but just getting there will be a test of mental endurance unprecedented in the history of spaceflight.
As NASA aims to send a crew to Mars sometime in the 2030s, the space agency has a challenge on its hands: How can they keep astronauts mentally healthy and happy on such long journeys?
Stressors in Space
The International Space Station (ISS) has been continuously occupied by rotating crews for nearly 17 years, so NASA is well-equipped to deal with the everyday frustrations its astronauts might face on their routine six-month stints in low-Earth orbit.
“We are actually really good at countermeasures and support for the International Space Station,” says Kelley Slack, an industrial-organizational psychologist who is part of NASA’s Behavioral Health and Performance group that helps select and train astronauts.
Many of those current countermeasures involve keeping astronauts feeling connected to home. They can talk and video-chat with loved ones, mission controllers, and doctors in real-time. They can have media events and press conferences and throw virtual first pitches at baseball games. Resupply missions can bring love notes, fresh fruit, and Thanksgiving dinners from Earth.
Those luxuries won’t be available to astronauts bound for Mars, who will be disconnected from home and the life they knew in a way unprecedented in the history of spaceflight. They won’t be able to have a real-time conversation with anyone but their crewmates. With up to a 20-minute one-way lag in communications, they’ll have to wait 40 minutes to get a response to each message they send to Earth.
Add those stressors to the list of others astronauts are likely to experience — sleep disturbances, lack of privacy, lack of sensory stimulation, monotony, potentially life threatening situations, and the discomfort of being in microgravity — and you might have a recipe for tension.
Space agencies like NASA haven’t had to respond to behavioral emergencies during any missions so far, but the likelihood of astronauts developing behavioral problems or psychiatric disorders will increase as mission duration increases, according to a 2015 NASA report about managing health risks for spaceflight. So mission managers have to come up with a new set of strategies to prevent such problems during long trips.
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