Psychological effects of space travel have a lasting impact on mental health
There is a long-awaited trip to Mars scheduled for the 2030’s, but astronauts have recorded psychological challenges while in space for a shorter amount of time. Manned space flights put people at a significant health risk.
Astronauts in interplanetary travel will be engaged on a trip of several months, which will isolate them for the rest of mankind. The psychological impact of this has sparked debate on whether or not manned space flights are too dangerous for human astronauts.
It takes an immense amount of mental strength to embark on a space expedition, and a journey to Mars – scheduled for the 2030's – would be one of proportions we have never seen before. According to the American Psychological Association, missions on the International Space Station last for about six months. Considering the ideal amount of time spent traveling to and from Mars along with a significant period of research on the planet, a mini documentary from The Verge claims it would likely take about three years. According to Dr. Nick Kansas of the University of California San Francisco, astronauts are subjected to a myriad of both physiological and psychological challenges. He notes muscle strain and weakness, bone loss over time, poor appetites and interrupted sleep schedules. He goes on to explain that all of this directly affects mental health. Remaining in close quarters for such an extended period of time is incredibly challenging, especially when living with people of different cultural backgrounds without the ability to ever step outside for fresh air. It takes a significant amount of time for the body to adjust to space, and just as much time for the body to readjust when it returns to Earth. Astronaut Scott Kelly remembers his colleague experiencing a mental breakdown, obsessing over whether or not he might have a tooth infection. Dr. Kansas notes that “psychosomatic reactions” (severe mental stress translating into tangible physiological problems) is very common. The Verge also reminds us that no human has ever not seen the Earth, but seeing it at a different size and from a different perspective can cause extreme existential stress. NASA analyzed astronauts’ brains after their missions on the ISS and discovered a strange “reduction in the connectivity of motor and vestibular areas – essential in movement – after long space flights.” Physiologically, the body adapts to the zero-gravity environment of outer space, so that astronauts eventually no longer feel as though they are constantly falling. Unfortunately, these lowered reflexes can last when they return to Earth. There is also research conducted by Johns Hopkins that confirms astronauts are more likely to develop dementia due to cosmic radiation.
Although there is evidence to suggest space travel is psychologically taxing, NASA has published research on mental health for their astronauts and takes the physical and emotional risks seriously. According to NBC News, NASA has a Behavioral Health and Performance Group. Kelley Slack, one of the psychologists, explains that while they cannot prevent some physical challenges, they have a plan in place for their upcoming trip to Mars. NASA is looking for a suitable team. They explain that Lance Armstrong displayed the desired qualities for an astronaut when he noted that while his heart was pounding when the team encountered a moon dust issue, he was still able to think clearly. While this quality is great, NASA is clear that they are looking for a team that can keep their heads but who can also engage in emotional conversations since there will be no access to psychologists. While there are years left of work to do, many researchers are invested in ensuring that the Mars journey will be a safe experience for the crew. Peggy Wu of SIFT is investigating a program called ANSIBLE that could allow the team to walk through simulated galleries or see virtual representations of their friends. NASA also uses “analog missions” to predict the kinds of challenges that could come up for their astronauts by simulating a Mars-like environment for up to a year. While they feared that most problems would arise due to being trapped in a confined space with the same people for such a significant amount of time, the most issues actually occurred in communication with mission control and rarely within the stand-in team. NASA also points out that they have always sent their astronauts to space with a very specific plan should an emergency break out due to a psychological problem. While this plan is clear to the team, no one has ever had to use it or handle drastic behavioral problems or crises.
Rejecting the premises