The psychological challenges of space travel and preparing the mind for Mars

NASA is looking for people who want to train to become astronauts and take part in its next missions to the Moon. (Image: NASA)

By Paige Cockburn for All in the Mind,
Published by ABC News, 8 March 2024

Imagine never leaving your workplace for six months.

Now imagine you’re stuck with five colleagues. They are always there.

Oh, and by the way, you work in outer space.

Your connections to Earth are limited, You can only speak briefly to your family and friends. If anything happens back home, you can’t do a thing about it.

And don’t forget that your work is high stakes. You must be able to react quickly and soundly if something goes wrong, otherwise you and your colleagues won’t survive.

Could you do it?

“I would have spent another six months [in space] and my family does know this,” former NASA astronaut Catherine “Cady” Coleman tells ABC RN’s All in the Mind.

The bubbly flight engineer worked on board the International Space Station (ISS) for 159 days in 2010 and 2011, so is very familiar with the mental hurdles of leaving Earth.

Depression, cognitive decline and even hallucinations have been observed by astronauts on the ISS or other long space flights.

To become an astronaut, Dr Coleman underwent gruelling psychological interviews and testing, and years of training across the world to make sure her mind, body and spirit could handle life in orbit.

Cady waves hello and talks on a satellite phone to her family shortly after landing in Kazakhstan in 2011.(Supplied: NASA)

But preparing astronauts for a future mission to Mars will be a challenge like no other for space agencies, and new strategies like hibernation are being explored.

So let’s see if you’ve got what it takes.

Sorting out personal differences

“You can stay on an elevator with just about anybody up to the 10th floor, but could you stay on that elevator for a month with the same people?”

NASA operational psychologist Albert Holland says that’s what the confined, hostile environment of space can feel like, so strong team cohesion and morale is paramount.

History shows it can make or break a mission. Soviet missions have been terminated early partly due to “interpersonal conflict” (1976 Soyuz-21 mission and the 1987 Soyuz TM2-Mir spaceflight) and depression among astronauts (1985 Soyuz T-14 expedition).

The ISS is a multicultural habitat, housing astronauts from all across the world, which means there can be cultural misunderstandings and communication issues.

The ISS has six sleeping quarters, two bathrooms and a gym.(NASA)

NASA-funded studies show Americans report higher work pressure than Russians on the ISS, but Russians feel more tension.

Dr Coleman, who has a doctorate in polymer science and engineering, lived with five other astronauts on the ISS; another American, an Italian and three Russians.

As the only woman, she sometimes had to have frank conversations when she felt her ideas weren’t being heard.

Expedition 27 crew members. From left: Ronald Garan, Paolo Nespoli, Alexander Samokutyaev, Catherine Coleman, Andrey Borisenko and Dmitri Kondratyev.(Supplied: NASA)

One of Dr Coleman’s crew mates, Russian cosmonaut Dmitri Kondratyev, had never worked with women before.

“I would say ‘Dimitri, here’s my great idea’ and [his] stoic face would look at me and it was my inclination to just be like ‘oh he doesn’t think my idea is any good, he doesn’t want to hear about an idea like that,'” Dr Coleman says.

“So I had to learn to pretend that Dmitri was smiling at me saying, ‘Cady, what’s your idea?'”

But despite personal differences, Dr Coleman never counted the days until she was back Earth-side and away from her crew mates.

Two words were the antidote to any agitation: the mission.

“When feelings of frustration at colleagues creep up, you say to yourself ‘do those feelings have a place in what we’re doing right now? Let’s put them somewhere else … they’re valid, but they don’t belong here because we have a job to do’.”

When mum’s not on the planet anymore

Some days your family drives you mad, and you might want to be on a different planet from them, but this separation can be the biggest cause of emotional turmoil for astronauts.

“Being connected to family is a way to emotionally rejuvenate,” Dr Holland says.

“It’s your sounding board, your emotional sustenance, and a way to vent.”

When Dr Coleman blasted off for the ISS in 2010, she left behind her husband Josh and their then-nine-year-old son Jamey.

Even though Jamey felt prepared for his mum’s departure, he was shocked by how vulnerable he felt when she launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

“I just remember immediately bursting into tears because I realised my mum is just not on the planet anymore. She’s not in California or Australia — she’s so, so far away.”

Dr Coleman spoke to Josh and Jamey for all but three of the days she was in space, and video called them once a week.

Cady on a video call with her son Jamey. Note the great “space hair”.(Supplied to ABC)

But as the signal can drop out suddenly — the ISS is always moving — conversations sometimes need to be brief.

“It would be hard when your son is having a hard day and there was nothing you could do to help,” Dr Coleman says.

“You want the other person to be OK when you’re not with them, but I think there’s a fear of ‘what if they’re so OK that they don’t need me anymore?'”

During calls, the family tried to keep the mood light. They would play the flute together — yes, Dr Coleman took hers with her — or read books aloud.

And although Jamey knew how important his mum’s job was, he would still get upset she wasn’t around to do regular things like attend his band recitals, or simple help him find missing items.

“I’d be like ‘where are my pants?’ and she’d be like ‘sweetie, I’m in space, I’m not really quite sure about that one.'”

For Dr Coleman, her new space family had to sometimes fill the shoes of Josh and Jamey.

Just like we often do at home, the astronauts would gather Friday or Saturday after work for TV nights (Dr Coleman says the Big Bang Theory was popular) and a sit-down dinner at least once a week.

The crew is also all you have for physical comfort in the event of bad news back home.

Tragically, during Dr Coleman’s mission, Italian flight engineer Paolo Nespoli received news that his mother had unexpectedly passed away.

At the time of the funeral, the ISS was over Italy, so all the astronauts gathered in the cupola, which is the station’s window to Earth, where they had a moment’s silence.

“Paolo spoke, not into the funeral but to mission control. He spoke about his mum, his time up in space and how he hoped she knew he was thinking of her,” Dr Coleman remembers.

Pack your composure

If despite all these challenges you’re still tempted to spend a stretch off Earth, let’s look at some of the characteristics you’ll need for long-duration space travel.

Dr Holland says you must be able to:

  • self-regulate your emotions and remain composed under pressure
  • mend fences ie. get back in someone’s good books after you’ve let them down
  • maintain a “somewhat” positive demeanour
  • recover effectively in the event of adversity
  • work well in a team, which means recognising when the issue is you, not others.

On top of this, you’ll need to be really good at small-group living. So yes, that means keeping your personal belongings organised.

This is the cupola where astronauts can guide operations outside the ISS and enjoy a panoramic view. (Supplied to ABC: European Space Agency)

Think you’ve got all this? How does a trip to Mars sound?

NASA hopes to send humans there in the next 10 years, but admits it will put a huge mental strain on the three or four astronauts expected to go.

The journey will take around six to nine months each way, and they will spend one year on the red planet.

The distance between Mars and Earth means there will be a communication lag of up to 20 minutes. This rules out rapid emergency support in the event of disaster on board, so the crew will need to be highly skilled at problem solving.

Dr Holland says this communication disconnect will be far more psychologically challenging than the overall duration of the trip.

The fact that Earth will eventually fade from view is also expected to affect mood.

The positive psychological effect of seeing Earth from above, known as the overview effect, has been a transcendental experience for many astronauts who say it helps with homesickness.

So NASA is currently working out how they could keep Mars-bound astronauts mentally strong.

Virtual reality is one option. It could trick an astronaut’s mind into thinking there’s real-time communication with their family, and offer breaks from the monotony by allowing them to take a virtual holiday in France or a walk in the park near home.

The European Space Agency and NASA are also looking into hibernation for the journey there and back. It could not only ward off boredom, but also cut down on the amount of food they need to take.

Astronauts would have their metabolism depressed to induce a state of torpor, a deep sleep state, in a specifically designed chamber set to 4 degrees Celsius.

But it’s uncharted territory. Research is needed on how astronauts would feel when they woke, and what would happen if a technical complication with the spacecraft required their attention while they were in torpor.

There will also be a lot of knowledge to gain from mock trips.

Right now, four people who aren’t astronauts are living in a 3D-printed habitat in Houston designed to simulate Mars.

The volunteers entering the 3D-printed Mars simulation last July. (Supplied to ABC: NASA)

The volunteers have been in the simulation since July 2023 and will be allowed out in July this year.

NASA is studying how they respond to environmental stressors such as equipment failure and limited resources, and will conduct another simulation with four different people in 2025.

So does Dr Holland think humans can stay sane on a three-year trip to Mars?

“Yes we can, and it’s the belief that we can that propels us to do it.

“That is what exploration is about. It used to be terrifying to get on a raft and head west across the ocean.

“There is a subset of people that are true explorers at heart and are energised by this, and they will go.”

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