Feeling Low Up High: the Lonely Astronaut

Psychologists worry about the strain of long space flights.

ByABC News
August 15, 2008, 12:23 PM

Aug. 18, 2008 — -- In 1982, Soviet cosmonaut Valentin Lebedev spent 211 days aboard the Salyut 7 space station, and the diary he kept became a cautionary tale. Psychologists who read it say it was clear he was suffering from depression.

"Five months of flight," he wrote one day. "We don't feel time anymore. It's getting more difficult now. I begin to count the days. I've never done it before. I think our fatigue grows because our interest in work is fading. I don't even want to look out the porthole anymore."

Lebedev said he was irritated by questions from mission control -- even when they asked nothing more than "How do you feel?" He became testy with his one crewmate, and at times, the two stopped talking. His sleep patterns were a mess.

If things were that difficult on a flight just a couple of hundred miles from the Earth's surface, how will explorers hold up on longer flights, perhaps to Mars -- where there is no option of returning to the ground if things become intolerable?

Psychologists want to get a grip on these issues now -- long before astronauts actually go.

"It's not so much depression as that you're under a lot of stress," says Marc Shepanek, a psychologist at NASA. "You're in a strange environment, you're concerned about radiation, you're in microgravity. They're hard on your body, hard on your health, hard on your immune system."

"The conditions of expeditioners to Mars will be very different from those of today's relatively comfortable space (or polar, or undersea) enclosures in constant touch with 'home,'" says Peter Suedfeld of the University of British Columbia, who gave a presentation Thursday at a meeting of the American Psychological Association.

"Most of the time, Earth will be very far away, out of sight and without easy, rapid communications. The crew will face novel physical and psychological challenges without outside help."

James Carter, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, is working on an interactive computer program called Virtual Space Station. With help from 13 American astronauts who have flown on long-duration flights, Carter's team is designing the program so that if an astronaut is suffering from depression or anxiety, or having a conflict with a crewmate, he or she can use the computer for therapy.