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Intangible Risk Factors and the Exploration of Outer Space

The astronauts and cosmonauts who venture to Mars and beyond can expect a bombardment of risk factors. A review of the literature on the preparations for exploring outer space makes it clear that the race to distant parts of the Universe will be won by the agency with the best grasp of a host of intangible endurance factors.

Endurance wasn’t an issue with early voyages. Professional spacefarers are disciplined, highly-trained individuals who share a sense of being part of an elite team with important work. Missions like Apollo 11 – a mere 8 days, 3 hours and 18 minutes – didn’t challenge these strengths. And the success of short-duration missions relies primarily on sound engineering and solutions involving the interface of man and technology.

Cosmonaut Valery Polyakov’s record for a single space flight of 438 days on Mir in 1995 was the most extreme foretaste to date of the role endurance will have in future missions. And at nearly three years, a piloted Mars mission will be more than twice as long as any single person has been in space, and five times longer than any crew has been together in space. Marvelous early views and the sense of mission will sustain crews for a time. Sooner or later on a long voyage they will be pressured by isolation, confinement and proximity. They may be in no frame of mind to deal with crises and with each other.

At NASA’s Johnson’s Space Center (JSC) and other space agencies the research and preparations for long missions focuses on preparing crews for this reality.

The Russian space station was the first endurance laboratory, and since 1999 the International Space Station (ISS) has filled the role.

Endurance and the Risks of Isolation

Reported in an Associated Press article in January 2001, NASA managers said they have the cure for the trauma brought on by isolation for ISS crews. The list includes regular care packages and fresh faces arriving on NASA shuttles and Russian Progress spacecraft. And robust video links with Earth, so crews can stay in touch with family and friends, take care of the virtual needs for contact.

Long-haul space crews will have only the virtual link for comfort, and it is likely to pale as the voyage progresses. Those missions won’t be punctuated by visits and care packages, and crews will beyond hope of rescue. If anything goes wrong, they are on their own. They will be the most isolated people in human history, millions of miles and months away from any possibility of rescue or return, living and working in close confinement and facing repeated expected and unexpected threats to their survival.

M. Ephimia Morphew’s doctoral dissertation, “Psychological and Human Factors in Long Duration Spaceflight” noted that the hardship will make crews vulnerable to exhaustion, lassitude, emotional instability, sleeplessness, sharpening of personality, incapacity for work, disruption of psychosociological reaction, psychosomatic dysfunction, euphoria, depression, neurosis and accentuation of negative personality traits. Psychomotor performance, dual task and tracking performance, fine manual control, alertness, vigilance, response time and ability to focus will also be affected, she wrote.

Any of these states can make crew members unproductive and a potential danger to themselves and others on a short haul mission. Experts see potential impairment growing with the duration of the mission.

Isolation also describes the lack of any physical connection with loved ones when astronauts are in orbit. It is a core issue of extended voyages. Paradoxically, it is the combination of isolation with close proximity that may present the most taxing challenge as it amplifies all the normal interpersonal irritations of the workplace and life on Earth.

It is no leap to assume that confined for long periods crew members could engage in the kind of behavior that can’t be shown on NASA-TV.

“Wherever humanity goes, our sexuality will surely follow,” wrote Raymond J. Noonan, in his 1998 doctoral dissertation. In “A Philosophical Inquiry into the Role of Sexology in Space Life Sciences Research and Human Factors Considerations for Extended Spaceflight” he noted that NASA had to deal with the biological aspects of maleness and femaleness, although many of the psychosocial aspects of sex and gender have yet to be adequately addressed.

A story covered widely in Europe in 1995 reported that cosmonauts Valery Polyakov and Yelena Kondakova were the first humans to explore sex in zero gravity. Psychiatrist Peter Pesavento recounted the incident in the 2004 issue of Quest: The History of Spaceflight Quarterly. Pesavento interviewed scientists, psychologists, astronauts and cosmonauts for the article to explore the mysteries of how humans handle themselves during extended space missions. “The largest challenge of long-term space flights (is) the need to have people return from their missions in acceptable emotional and physical health,” he said. Sex is the key, he argued.

In an interview with in March 2000, Lyubov Serova, a Russian expert in the field dismisses the notion that sex in space contributes anything significant to these two states. “This is a very complicated issue,” Serova said. “It all depends on a personal dominant motivation. A human central nervous system is always aimed at the achievement of a certain main goal. For some people sex is such a goal. However, people who are professionally very motivated and goal-oriented do not need sex as an emotional release. It requires a lot of motivation and determination to become a cosmonaut. This is why a space flyer just won’t have time to be concerned about sex in space.”

Other kinds of intimacy than can grow from proximity are friendship and love, but these too can be risk factors. In his book, “Spacefaring: The Human Dimension,” Albert A. Harrison wrote: “Spacefarers live in close confinement, and we want them to be cordial, indeed friendly, with one another. Yet we might be wary of unusually strong attachments or emotional bonds. We must count on crewmembers to work as a team and not show favoritism by attending to a lover rather than to the job. It could be very difficult to manage a personal relationship that goes sour early in a mission.”

He sees composing crew of preformed couples as one possibility, but allows for the chance that circumstances could lead to breakups and that favoritism could get out of hand.

Danger and Stress in the Cauldron of Risk Factors

John Putnam, writing in the December issue of The Space Review, believes he can predict from ape behavior the ways physical risk may impact on long-duration crews. A psychophysiology and biofeedback clinician and researcher, he explains that the animals generally live in the forest where they are relatively safe from predators, but when food is scarce they venture onto the plains where there is less protection. “After several days without an attack … the apes begin to attack and kill each other. It is theorized that the long periods of physiological mobilization due to fear of attack ultimately overrides the apes’ inherently altruistic nature. … In human beings, when a threatening situation is prolonged and never resolved, the sympathetic nervous system essentially remains engaged, or at least never completely disengages.”

Nick Kanas, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California and the Veteran’s Hospital in San Francisco, rates risks to astronauts from stress less emphatically. He notes that astronauts manage stress a whole lot better than most of us. His research began with the shuttle-Mir program in the 1990’s, and now he’s working with the crew of the International Space Station. Crew members answer weekly questionnaires for him about their moods, feelings and daily lives in orbit. Interviewed for an Associated Press story on Oct. 21, 2002, Kanas said they have to manage stress well as there are always hazards looming. Radiation storms, space debris and the possibility of crashing could be threatening at the same time crews are trying to handle tasks ordered by ground control.

“Many of those who go into space are able to suppress their emotions when they need to. That’s a valuable trait because it helps get things done. “The problem,” says Kanas, “is if you suppress your emotions for months on end, it can wear you down.” One way of relieving that tension is displacement, a common way to relieve stress. Mission control is often the target, he said, but in the long run displacement “is toxic because it lets the real problems fester.”

Destructive and self-destructive moods and behaviors tend to emerge under very certain conditions, according to Putnam, “namely a pervasive, unrelenting threatening situation from which there is no escape, coupled with long periods of boredom. He illustrated his point with the example of young men who are peaceable under ordinary conditions but who can be moved to commit atrocities under extreme circumstances. “Adding the condition of isolation (in space) … amplifies the perception of inescapability,” he added.

Looking to Hability and Compatability for Solutions

In her dissertation Dr. Morphew identified psychological support as one of the most effective countermeasures to the problems of isolation, proximity and adverse emotional states. Russian, European, Japanese, Canadian, and US space programs are studying space sociology, or psychosocial issues, as a means of lessening the isolation and stressors of spaceflight, she wrote.

Agency studies cover the way team members interact, factors that influence interactions and how the interaction ultimately affects the outcome of a mission. “In high-stress environments where crews must rely on each other to enable mission functions, factors such as the personality, gender, and multiculturality of the crewmembers impact crew performance and mission success.” Teamwork flaws have caused some missions to fail, she noted.

And she explains that methods are being developed to select psychologically-fit crewmembers. “These validation studies have now revealed that several personality variables such as agreeableness, conscientiousness, empathy, sociability, and flexibility … are positively correlated with astronaut performance under stressful conditions in teamwork, group living, motivation, and decision making.”

Other methods cover ways psychologists and psychiatrists can monitor the psychological, cognitive, and emotional state of crewmembers from earth.

Habitability issues are under scrutiny. Some of their recent concerns of researchers are the need for windows in spacecraft, she wrote, as well as the importance of group dining in long-duration spaceflight. And a project at JSC explores ways to compensate for the irreversibility of errors, information overload, negative transfer between tasks and too much or too little work.

Leadership is another area of study. The kind of support astronauts need from their commander might also change as the mission progresses. Scientists have found that at the beginning of an expedition, the leaders rated most highly were those who were task-oriented, and got things done. But later, the most appreciated leaders were those that focused on morale, on how people felt.
Proximity and habitability encompass the issue of privacy. According to Putnam, the cultural background of crew members will shape their reactions. Asian and Middle Easterners tend to tolerate higher-density living better than most North Americans, he explained, and within the North American culture, men tend to need more privacy than women.

“Habitability volume” is a NASA term that refers to usable living space. Agency experts regard 17 cubic meters/person is optimal for a six-month journey. This introduces another potential stress for long-haul space crews. They could have only a fraction of that space, and will be confined it for extended periods.

If lessons aboard Mir are any indication, Putnam explains, long-term flights will tend to tease out and expose our weakest links as the ability to endure extended periods of isolation under heavy work load conditions in microgravity is stretched to the limit.

Robert Zubrin, author many books about space and a journalist with unrivalled access to NASA sources, argues that the human psyche won’t be the weak element in the loop on the distant trips “if we address the issue squarely … with careful crew selection, advanced preparation, and adequate countermeasures.” It is crucial that we do our homework before venturing out into deep space, he added.

Sources: Associated Press; M. Ephimia Morphew; Raymond J. Noonan; Quest: The History of Spaceflight Quarterly;; “Spacefaring: The Human Dimension”; Robert Zubrin

This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2006-03-01.