The 4 Psychological Effects That Astronauts Experience In Space

The psychological effects that astronauts experience in space

It has been more than 50 years since humans reached the Moon, and since then we have set our sights on much more distant destinations.

However, although many may think that the obstacles to achieving this are only distance, fuel, etc., one of the greatest challenges faced by the main space agencies is to control the psychological effects experienced by astronauts

The importance of the psychological effects experienced by astronauts

We’ve all heard about how demanding the requirements are to be an astronaut. Both NASA (the North American space agency), ESA (the European one) or Rocosmos (the Russian one), among others, require engineering or similar degrees, an age and height within certain ranges and, above all, a state in adequate physical shape, without vision defects and that allows the candidate to overcome the tough tests to which he will be subjected.

But that is not all. It will be useless to have a brilliant resume and an athlete’s physical form if that person also has an unstable personality or at least not strong enough to withstand the conditions of stress and extreme isolation that he will have to face. Hence the importance of anticipating the psychological effects experienced by astronauts.

Let’s think for a moment about the astronauts aboard Apollo 13, Lowell, Swigert and Haise, whose journey suffered countless unforeseen events These men faced one of the most intense stress situations experienced by any human being before, as they were hundreds of thousands of kilometers from our planet, surrounded by vacuum, in a damaged ship and losing oxygen.

If any of them had lacked extreme mental strength, they may have succumbed to panic and probably would not have been able to overcome all the problems that arose, working as a perfect team, and finally returning to Earth, safe and sound, against everything. forecast. The psychological characteristics of the Apollo 13 astronauts were, without a doubt, one of the reasons for their success.

Psychological exhaustion factors in outer space

Idyllically, we can think that traveling to space is one of the most exciting experiences that a human being can live. And so it is, but that does not mean that it is also the most hostile environment we can face. Is about a scenario totally different from the terrestrial environment to which we are accustomed, and with extreme conditions in all aspects Logically, these conditions have a cost, and they are the psychological effects that astronauts experience.

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Below we are going to review some of the most important characteristics of this medium and what are the repercussions on the psychological conditions of space travelers, which fundamentally translate into symptoms of anxiety and depression.

1. Microgravity

The first and most obvious factor is the absence of gravity, a characteristic known as microgravity. Experiencing this sensation may seem very fun and interesting at first, but in reality very soon we begin to feel its consequences. The cardiovascular system is one of those that suffers the most, having to work twice as hard to pump blood throughout the body.

This, among many other things, produces a sensation of headache, a kind of migraine, lacking the effect of Earth’s gravity to attract blood downwards and prevent it from being retained in the head. Added to this is that dust particles in the air cannot fall to the ground, and are therefore breathed in more frequently, which increases allergies and aggravates the headache problem.

On a psychological level, this annoying sensation, not very intense but constant, It is a source of stress and mental exhaustion for which you must be properly prepared, otherwise it can affect the performance of the different activities carried out on board by the astronauts.

2. Isolation

Obviously, another of the main characteristics of space missions is the isolation they entail. Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) are 408 kilometers above Earth, surrounded only by emptiness The missions have very specific durations, which means that once you reach the ISS, there is no option to return until the scheduled deadline is met.

This means that, once they board the ship, they are aware that for several days, weeks, even in some cases, months, they will not have any possibility of seeing their loved ones or moving beyond the narrow confines of the ship. corridors of a metal structure that will float without pause over the planet. Any situation that occurs there will have to be resolved by them and their colleagues.

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Logically, not everyone is prepared for a situation of absolute isolation like this. All astronaut candidates must have appropriate psychological profiles for this and also to guarantee as far as possible correct management of interpersonal relationships with the rest of the colleagues and this is a key factor to take into account in order to control the psychological effects experienced by astronauts.

These people are going to be the only human beings you will see for a long period, and they will also do so under really stressful working conditions and in an extreme physical environment. It is essential to ensure that there is a good relationship between all of them, that they cooperate and a positive climate reigns, and even more so taking into account that they will meet people from very different regions and cultures.

Thus, One of the characteristics of most astronauts is the affability and ease of relating to their peers, since we have already seen that it is an essential factor to ensure good coexistence and thus guarantee the good development of the missions. Let’s think that any interpersonal incident, any small argument, can be fatal for the climate experienced on the ship or on the station.

3. Sleep

Sleep problems are another of the main factors to take into account On a spaceship, circadian cycles begin to experience problems. The concept of day and night disappears, being able to see sunrise and sunset every few minutes, so we lose the solar reference.

Added to this are the high-decibel sounds that are constantly heard on the space station, as well as the tasks that have to be carried out at very specific times, which implies that they must wake up “at night” regularly, if the mission requires it. . Astronauts typically sleep two hours less in space than on Earth.

Sleep is a fundamental restorative element, and Without adequate rest, both physical and psychological effects appear quickly This translates into fatigue, irritability, and poorer performance on tasks. Therefore, it is common for astronauts to use pharmacology to help them fall asleep and thus reduce these effects as much as possible.

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4. Stress

In reality, stress is a consequence of all the others and many other variables, but it is such an important factor that it deserves a separate point. The complexity of the tasks performed by an astronaut, as well as the conditions in which they have to perform them, are unmatched by other professional activities This, of course, is a very intense source of stress.

Some missions in stations such as Skylab or MIR, or in the ISS itself (ISS) lasted several months. Such an amount of time, working at the highest level and in space conditions, represents stress that is not bearable for everyone. That is why the selection of candidates has to be so demanding, since not all subjects are capable of withstanding the psychological effects that astronauts experience.

The great challenge: Mars

But all of these situations have been studied in the manned missions carried out to date, the furthest being those of the Apollo program, which reached the Moon (almost 400,000 km) and the longest in time being that of cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov (437 days). ) and that of American astronaut Christina Koch (328 days). But These figures pale in comparison to the great challenge that all space programs have on the horizon: the trip to Mars.

Apart from the immense technological challenge that this space odyssey entails, we cannot ignore the psychological implications that traveling in a capsule of quite small dimensions can have on a human being, for between 6 and 9 months, counting only the one way, carry out the missions on the surface of the red planet during the stipulated time, and manage to return to Earth in one piece for the same period of time.

In order to anticipate the psychological effects that astronauts would experience on this hypothetical mission, Experts study similar situations of isolation, such as those that occur, over distances, in submarines, or in facilities in the Arctic prepared for this purpose, such as the Neumayer III. NASA even has a simulator in Houston, called Hera, where they also carry out studies to verify these effects.

Obviously all these elements help to anticipate many of the situations that may arise during a long-term space trip and the resulting psychological effects, but until the big moment arrives we will not know the true repercussions that interplanetary travel can have on people. the mind of the human being.