In honour of World Mental Health Day 2019, here follows a brief overview of the mental health impacts of space travel and how NASA has altered its attitude to this pressing issue over the decades.
Arguably, the worst thing to happen to Buzz Aldrin was walking on the moon. After returning to Earth as American heroes, things quickly spiraled downward for Buzz. He had been to the moon, one of the first two humans to ever do so and one of only 12 that ever have – how on Earth do you compete with that? Upon his return, he developed severe depression and spend the majority of the 1970s in a drunken stupor leaving his house only to buy more alcohol and fried chicken. After a brief stint as a commander in the Test Pilot Academy, he was shunned by the US Air Force and then by NASA for being so open about his mental health issues. He ended up within a few years becoming an unsuccessful salesman at a Cadillac dealership. “When we got back from the Moon, none of us was prepared for the adulation that followed,” said Aldrin. “We were engineers, scientists, fighter pilots being feted like movie stars, and it was all too much for most of us – certainly for me.”
While Aldrin is the most open moonwalker about his struggles with mental illness, he is not alone. Alan Bean spent much of his post-Apollo life just painting lunar landscapes (over and over again), Edgar Mitchell became a steadfast “the government is hiding aliens” advocate and Charlie Duke turned to religion; becoming a heavily committed Evangelist, friend of Billy Graham and moving his family to the San Antonio suburbs. The mental strain of returning to Earth after going as far as any human ever has was felt differently by each man – but felt it was. NASA offered no Apollo aftercare leaving the moonwalkers to deal with their life-changing experiences alone, surrounded by people who couldn’t possibly understand their new perspective on the world. Whether they dealt with it by turning to alcohol or to religion, the men coped in whatever way they could in an era of human history where mental health was not considered a priority.
While we still have a long way to go in reducing mental health stigma across humanity, NASA is one organisation that has stepped up to the plate in terms of addressing the mental health concerns of its astronauts – indeed it’s now a priority. NASA realised that to send humans to Mars and other long haul space mission they would need to account for the human-ness of their astronauts, and within that mental health must be considered.
Today’s astronauts face different mental challenges than their Apollo counterparts. The stress isn’t so much the awareness that comes from seeing your world as a fragile marble floating in front of you but rather the stresses associated with months-long expeditions in a metal box in constant free-fall above our planet. Astronauts staying on the International Space Station have to deal with homesickness, isolation, depression, boredom and potential conflicts with fellow crew members from whom you cannot escape. So how do they cope?
From the outset now NASA and other space agencies seek to recruit only those who demonstrate high levels of mental resilience and already function well in high-stress environments eg; engineering or military careers. They employ psychiatric screening processes throughout recruitment and eliminate candidates who test as susceptible to the pressures of their new zero-gravity work environment. But even these candidates, mentally screen and vetted though they may be, will still experience some of the issues outlined above.
NASA is keen to point out that there have been no instances of a space specific “mental illness” but rather the everyday pressures of the earth follow the astronauts up to space. Boredom can be common on ISS missions – you can’t just go for a walk to free up your mind a little bit. Astronauts can communicate with their family but won’t see them in person for up to a year. Existentially, seeing your world from a vantage point that no one else can create its own unique set of worries for you, such as seeing the deterioration of the rainforests. Furthermore, the space programs attract ambitious personalities; cram 6 of them together in a box above the earth for a year and you are certain to have some interpersonal issues. But NASA knows and understands this; they learned a lot from the earlier SkyLab missions in which crew complained of overworking and unpleasant conditions. Astronaut training aims to encompass these challenges; for example, in preparation for a Mars mission, new recruits are dropped in a remote location with limited supplies and a time-delay on communication to replicate a true Mars mission. These simulated missions aren’t without criticism, you cannot truly replicate the isolation felt by astronauts straying from their home planet for the first time.
NASA is developing AR to help astronauts communicate more effectively with their family back home; a key source of feelings of homesickness. Additionally, you may notice that ISS astronauts tweet frequently as well as take part in interviews and live broadcasts – though social media cannot replicate socialising on Earth, it does serve as a distraction and allows for some forms of self-expression. Astronauts can blog about their breakfast too, just like us, if they so wish.
At the Planetarium we are often asked why the ISS exists and what exactly they are doing up there. There is an argument to be made that they’re there to be there; humans living in space is the experiment. If we are to venture to Mars and beyond we need to know how humans will cope mentally. No mission would be possible without the astronauts functioning at their best. Though NASA did not realise it at the time, the lack of interest in mental health research and aftercare of their Apollo men laid bare the consequences of not taking mental health as seriously as physical health.
If you are struggling with your mental health, please reach out to these services; you are not alone.