New Study Analyzes Depression in Space

ByAndrew Quinn

S A N  F R A N C I S C O, Oct. 13, 2000 -- Russian cosmonauts whoserved aboard the Mir space station were generally happier andmore satisfied than their American counterparts, according tothe first-ever mental health study of crews and controllers inmanned space missions.

The study, conducted by University of California-SanFrancisco researchers, concluded that lopsided crew compositionof two Russians and one American on each mission left U.S.astronauts feeling both frustrated and lonely.

Third Wheel Syndrome

“In multicultural crews, especially small crews, one has topay a lot of attention to the culture and language backgroundof the people involved,” Nick Kanas, a UCSF professor ofpsychiatry, said Thursday. “A single person who is differentfrom the other two can feel isolated.”

Kanas’ study, which was conducted under contract to NASAand in conjunction with Russia’s Institute for BiomedicalProblems, surveyed 13 crew members and 58 mission controlpersonnel during NASA missions to Russia’s Mir space stationbetween 1995 and 1998.

It found unequivocally that the American participants wereless satisfied with their group interaction and workenvironment than were the Russians, reporting less support anddirection from superiors, more work pressure, less personalopportunity and less physical comfort.

Kanas said a major reason for the difference was likely thefact that on each mission, a solitary U.S. astronaut was teamedwith two Russian crewmates.

“This creates a potential imbalance,” Kanas said. “Thecommander was always a Russian; the language used was alwaysRussian; and the operational control of the Mir space stationwas in Russian hands.”

Planning for Longer Missions

Kanas, who is also associate chief of mental healthservices at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center,said that the results of the study should prove useful to NASAas it plans future, lengthy missions — from the InternationalSpace Station to potential missions to Mars.

“Any problems that exist are highlighted when you areconfined and further highlighted when you are confined formonths,” Kanas said in an interview.

“One of the things we’re recommending in the future is thatcrews be alerted to this before they fly … that there aremechanisms for crew members to look at how they are relating inspace.”

Three-person crews are likely to remain standard for sometime, chiefly because the planned space station’s Soyuz escapepod can hold only three people. Kanas’ report stressed thatcare should be taken on future missions to avoid setting up anautomatic “odd-man out” situation, which could exacerbatetension among the crew.

“Three-person crews are tough because the number three,even when everybody is demographically similar, is a veryunstable number,” Kanas said. “And it always gets moredifficult when you go into it with an automatic minority,either by language or culture or sex.”

Rotate the Leader

Until crews can be expanded, Kanas suggested that officialsset up a system whereby the leadership role can be rotatedamong the three crew members — preventing the formation ofonboard power blocs.

Kanas said the study also indicated that NASA shouldstrengthen psychological training for astronauts, noting thatwhile most U.S. space missions thus far have been relativelybrief, future trips could send astronauts into space for monthsor even years with no outside support.

“On a trip to Mars, for example, there is going to be atime delay in communication, and any sort of medical problemthat takes place is going to have to be taken care of by thecrew itself,” Kanas said.

“It is important that at least one of the members, andmaybe more, have some therapeutic and psychological counselingtraining.”

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