How to Keep Astronauts from Going Astronuts

With arguably the coolest job on or off the planet, astronauts need nobody's pity. Nonetheless, theirs is a life of extraordinary psychological demands: leadership, technical proficiency, split-second decision making and ironclad focus.

Beyond fulfilling the "hero" requirements, astronauts have to deal with mundane chores, like bringing in new supplies and taking out the garbage. The view is the best thing about their work environment. Air conditioning units put out constant noise. Microgravity is disorienting. Body fluids move all over the place, leaving them with puffy faces. Astronauts often have trouble sleeping and suffer from flu-like symptoms known as the "space crud." Even on Earth, with the ability to go home at the end of the day, we'd find these taxing.

"You can train people in simulators, but in space there is no walking out of it," said Douglas Vakoch, clinical psychologist and a director at the SETI Institute. "Flights are becoming longer and more complicated, so the stress is higher too."

Vakoch is the editor of the Psychology of Space Exploration, released in July by NASA. Wired.com talked with Vakoch about the changing demands on astronauts.

Wired.com: What is the "right stuff"?

Douglas Vakoch: Historically someone with the "right stuff" was a tough, individualistic person who could explore an unknown frontier with great courage and certainty. John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, is a good example of someone with the "right stuff."

These characteristics are still required of astronauts in a lot of ways. Even now, we can't take for granted that another spacecraft launch is going to be problem-free. There still needs to be this sense of courage, of focus. But I think the "right stuff" has broadened.

Wired.com: What does it mean now?

Vakoch: Now, you not only need to be a self-sufficient individual, you need to be able to work with astronauts from other cultures on the International Space Station. People from the same culture often take for granted a certain way of doing things, but another culture will probably have a different way of doing it.

If you're an American astronaut, very often you'll be working with people who don't put as high an emphasis on individualism as the United States does. So, beyond the need for autonomy and independence, there is a greater need for interpersonal and intercultural sensitivity among astronauts.

Wired.com: Psychologists played a large role in selecting candidates for Project Mercury, the first human spaceflight program of the United States. And then psychology's role diminished. Why was that?

Vakoch: From the outset of space exploration the goal was to have astronauts that would be very stable, able to work under conditions of great duress, without a history of psychological problems. From the start of the Mercury missions, candidate astronauts were given a battery of tests to see if they were prone to depression, anxiety and if they could work well with others.

We still do that, but one of the challenges of incorporating psychology and all that psychologists have to offer, is an astronaut's need to maintain an image of constant stability, showing that they are continually ready for flight status. Once an astronaut is selected, they're not likely to say when they are having problems at home, feeling depressed or particularly stressed. Once they're in space, speaking up is even harder. It is still hard for psychologists to offer support to an astronaut in a way that doesn't jeopardize their career.

The early Mercury astronauts performed very well. And NASA chose to focus more on depicting astronauts as heroes, as having the "right stuff," with no problems at all, and less on having them speak to psychologists.

Wired.com: Did the psychological hands-off approach work?

Vakoch: Early on, when the missions were of shorter duration, it was feasible to say, "You're only going up for a few minutes, hours or days. You can deal with a certain amount of stress." The early astronauts had backgrounds as a military test pilots and were well-suited to the pressure.

But then, in the late 60s, the tasks become more complex. Astronauts were leading complicated scientific experiments, and doing it over a longer period of time. Psychologists were still involved, but they were more focused on the ergonomics and design of the astronauts' surroundings. Making the cockpit and controls most usable, for example. There was less emphasis on the duress of being in space.

Wired.com: Astronauts were once all white males, now they are much more diverse. How did that transition go?

Vakoch: Groups of people working together in space need a strong sense of cohesion. Having people of different backgrounds in some cases is helpful, in some cases more difficult. But if you look at reports of how women, for example, have played a more central role in spaceflight, it's gone very well. I think the original corps of male military test pilots unnecessarily constrained the range of astronauts.

Wired.com: Has it all been smooth sailing?

Vakoch: No. In 1978, for example, a Czech Air Force Pilot named Vladimir Remek joined Russian cosmonauts aboard Mir, the Russian Space Station. He came back complaining of "Red Hand Syndrome."

He said that when he would reach for one switch or another, a Russian cosmonaut would slap his hand because they didn't want him to actually be involved. It can be a problem for guest members to not feel as important as the rest of the crew. Now, while there are anecdotes about conflicts between astronauts and cosmonauts, I should say in general there is good cooperation across nationalities.

If there are conflicts in space, they tend to be with Mission Control back at home. On Skylab 4, for example, the astronauts effectively went on strike, because they had been over-scheduled and worked too hard.

Wired.com: What are some of the new tools to help astronauts if a problem pops up in space?

Vakoch: There is more inter-personal skills and sensitivity training. U.S. astronauts preparing to spend time aboard the International Space Station even have the option to stay with a Russian family to learn about the culture. In the future, astronauts will have a training module called the Virtual Space Station, created by a Harvard University psychologist named Jim Carter.

It's a program astronauts can use to cope with interpersonal conflict and feelings of depression. It can kept on a flash drive, so you can plug it into a computer during your scheduled free time period. No one on board or at home will know if you are using it, allowing astronauts to work through challenging scenarios and receive advice in privacy.

Another tool that could help astronauts prepare for international missions ahead of time is the Culture Assimilator, which teaches you to understand the experiences of people from diverse cultures.

Wired.com: How could it be used?

Vakoch: Let's imagine that you're a U.S. astronaut aboard the International Space Station, and a shuttle comes up with a collection of care packages from home. One of your fellow Russian crew members immediately opens all of them up. How do you understand this? What is his motivation?

The Culture Assimilator can explain it's the Russian tendency to be exuberant about getting the care packages. It's a culture that takes great pleasure in a grand celebrations. It's the American tendency to want the care packages spaced out over time, to get consistent reminders of people back home.

Wired.com: It's a sort of cultural, problem-solving Wikipedia?

Vakoch: Yes, will help smooth out misunderstandings before they heat up into conflicts.

Wired.com: What is it like to re-integrate to life on Earth for an astronaut?

Vakoch: If an astronaut has been able to deal with the stresses of space, they've learned to cope with a lot! The stresses of being on Earth can seem not so bad. For other astronauts though, life on Earth is a bit of a let down. The ones who seem to do best are those who keep seeking new challenges.

Wired.com: What is great about being in space?

Vakoch: Intellectually we know that we have just one planet, but the experience of seeing the Earth out the window is something that many astronauts describe as having a profound personal impact. One that minimizes the differences that otherwise seem so important.

Another part is the prospect of exploring new territories. The next large-scale mission from the United States that was identified by president Obama last year is a trip to an asteroid by 2025. Those astronauts will explore in a way that hasn't been done before - one that could potentially be very important for us. Astronauts love the exploratory spirit of missions.

Correction: The original version of this article misstated the Russian space station joined by Vladimir Remek. He joined Russian cosmonauts aboard Salyut 6.

Psychology of Space Exploration is available for purchase through the Government Printing Office.

How to Keep Astronauts from Going AstronutsWired.com has been expanding the hive mind with technology, science and geek culture news since 1995.