The psychology of space travel: Science fiction vs science fact

In the popular science fiction series Star Trek the crew of the Enterprise often faced situations that affected their psychological wellbeing. Captain Kirk was often faced with difficult command decisions that caused him stress. Friction often occurred among the crew and the Vulcan Science Officer Mr Spock due to their cultural differences and more often than not the crew had to face the many perils of living and working in deep space. 

But how close to reality is Star Trek with its depiction of psychology and space travel? Society member James Albins investigates.

Ever since man first ventured into space several studies and anecdotal reports have shown that the crew can indeed face both environmental and psychosocial stressors which can have a negative effect on their mental wellbeing.

In his diary Russian cosmonaut Valentin Lebedev, who spent 211 days aboard the Solyut 7 space station, mentioned several factors which affected him psychologically. Like the crew of the Enterprise he to experienced a cultural clash when a visiting French crew led him too often feel frustrated, and he is not alone as cultural clashes were also reported in studies conducted among the joint Russian and American Mir/Space Shuttle missions and the International Space Station crews.

Unlike the crew of the Enterprise Lebedev also suffered from constant headaches caused by the zero gravity environment and a lack of sleep due to the constant exposure to the suns UV rays which are more intense outside of the earth’s atmosphere and cause you to see white lights whilst your eyes are shut.

To date the Apollo moon landings have been the only manned missions to see humans venture out of the relative safety of low earth orbit and into deep space.  But now, almost half a century on both NASA and China are planning ambitious deep space missions that will see mankind return to the Moon, land on a meteor and venture to Mars.

One of the biggest challenges facing the crews of these missions is the lack of direct communication with Earth.  With time delays in radio communication ranging from between 3 to 30 minutes in length the commander of any future mission will have to make their own decisions and live with the consequences of them, unlike Captain Kirk who has direct subspace communication.

This time delay is something that has been factored into the recent Mars500 project which aims to simulate a round trip to Mars here on Earth. The volunteers of this multi-national study will be analysed to see how well they cope with the stress of decision making in an emergency situation without having any direct communication with flight control on Earth.

The future of manned space travel comes with many challenges that hopefully the crew will be well prepared for and able to cope with thanks largely to research being conducted into space psychology and, to some small extent popular science fiction.

The December 2008 issue of The Psychologist included an article on how astronauts are selected and supported.