Astronauts face mental and emotional challenges the majority of us will never experience. For astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS), free falling at over 17,000 mph 217 miles above the Earth can be a bit stressful. But even after the acclimation to microgravity sets in, there’s still boredom, isolation, fatigue, and claustrophobia to fight.
The life of an astronaut is a paradox. It’s highly technical work performed at a tedious refrain. Astronauts have the benefit of weightlessness, but even the smallest tasks take extreme effort. They literally have the best view of Earth, but it hardly ever changes. And, astronauts are completely cut off from friends and family, but every second of their lives are constantly monitored. For ordinary Earthlings, being an astronaut would be like painting a fence while coping with chronic test anxiety.
How does a “space sailor” keep a cool head with such environmental and emotional demands? Their innate skills and intense training are their main advantages. But astronauts also stay mentally fit by staying connected to Earth.
Most individuals chosen to become astronauts arrive pre-made to handle stress in high-pressure situations. Fighter jet pilots, physicians, academics, aeronautical technicians, and the like are common backgrounds of former astronauts. NASA takes candidates familiar with high-risk conditions, where it can be a matter of life or death. They’re chosen because they can handle evolving circumstances, interpret streams of complex data, and solve problems in a time crunch.
These experiences give astronauts the confidence level necessary to keep calm and carry on. NASA psychologists consider the ability to manage stress as critical to finding candidates with the “right stuff.” Astronauts “already know [they] can meet stressful challenges,” says NASA senior operational psychologist Dr. Jim Picano, “and [they] believe [they] can overcome these things.”
Astronauts start their missions already equipped with the confidence to override fight-or-flight responses by focusing on analytical thought. The more confident they are, the less stress they feel.
Besides their natural talents and life experience, astronauts gain loads of confidence from the intense training. Astronaut training focuses on repetition and contingency planning — being able to perform procedures ad nauseam until you have to go off script. Picano notes that training is also a big boost to an astronaut’s mental health:
“The training that astronauts receive shapes their confidence in the procedures and equipment they have, to deal with spaceflight commands as well as emergencies. Rehearsing these over and over again…brings a sense of preparation that allows them to believe they can influence and change their circumstances for the better.”
This type of repetitive training helped astronaut Luca Parmitano survive one of the scariest wardrobe malfunctions in NASA history. During a 2013 spacewalk outside the ISS, Parmitano’s space helmet filled with water after his suit’s cooling system malfunctioned. The water-soaked helmet and sudden nightfall made getting back to the airlock impossible to do by sight. To make matters worse, the veteran astronaut was on the brink of drowning in his own spacesuit.
Parmitano’s training and intimate knowledge of the station’s architecture allowed him to find his way to safety even in complete darkness. His fellow astronauts and ground control later commented on how cool-headed Parmitano stayed during the entire ordeal — training had trumped his fear and given him the confidence to manage his stress and survive.
Astronauts are still humans. They need a connection to their family, friends, and communities to keep their mental health in check. That’s why NASA offers ISS crew members psychological support services for them and their families. These support structures help keep an astronaut tethered to his or her “normal” life. They include:
Technology aboard the ISS makes it possible for astronauts to directly communicate with family and friends, listen to music, and watch TV and movies. All these small touches add up to maintaining the strong social and familial connections that support an astronaut’s well-being and mental health in space.
With NASA’s efforts to send humans to Mars by 2030, the space agency is studying the psychological effects of long-duration space travel. Since the trip will take about six months, scientists are investigating the mental strains from long term confinement with others and disconnection from Earth (round trip messages take forty minutes).
Russian psychologists have already identified one long-duration syndrome called “spaceflight asthenia.” Symptoms include fatigue, weakness, irritability, insomnia, withdrawal from others, and territorial behavior.
While there have yet to be physical fights on the ISS, NASA isn’t taking any chances. It keeps antipsychotics, antidepressants, and physical restraints on board. And as missions get longer, it’s inevitable that astronauts will begin to encounter new challenges to maintaining their mental health. They’re our best and brightest, but they’re still human.
Brandon Jarman is a freelance writer and science enthusiast. When he’s not writing, he enjoys spending time with his family and nerding-out about the latest video game.