Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Psychology of Space Travel

NASA has revealed that they have procedures in place for when an astronaut goes out of control in space and must be subdued for the safety of everyone. This whole Nowak incident has people asking about the psychological effects of space travel, even though Nowak herself was only in space for two weeks. I did a paper on the psychological effects of space travel when I was in high school, and the research was indeed thin. Most of the papers I could find were translated from Russian. The U.S. has always paid great attention to the physical effects of space travel, but direct research into the psychological effects of being in space was limited. Most of the studies I looked at for my paper involved the psychological effects of “space-like” conditions. Biosphere II tried to demonstrate what a settlement on another planet would be like. That ended… not well. Antarctic research stations mimic the true isolation (people in Biosphere II could theoretically step outside if they really wanted out) and close quarters of a long-duration mission. There have been adverse psychological effects observed in these conditions, but nothing destructive (as far as I can find).

I’ve posited before that the Internet is pushing human behavioural evolution in a direction that will make people more able to cope with the isolation of space travel. However, the confinement and close quarters are a different matter. Even those who have lived at sea for extended periods of time have not done so for a period of time even approaching what a Mars mission would be. And we have no way of knowing what will happen as astronauts slowly watch Earth shrink and shrink and shrink until it is but a bright blue star out their window. If you think looking at Earth from orbit makes you feel small, what will it feel like to see that massive orb reduced to a spec among many?

I do think we should explore space ourselves and not just leave it to the robots. Exploration is essential to the human condition. But no one said this would be easy. Besides, if it were easy, what fun would it be?

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