View of Mir Space Station, cloudy earth limb, STS-79Spaceflight offers astronauts immense psychological rewards. However, long-duration spaceflight also poses great psychological risks. Dangers, deprivation, isolation, and confinement helped make the Mir residencies—in the words of some U.S. astronauts—the "hardest thing" they had ever done.

Moreover, their spaceflights came on the heels of difficult periods in Russia, where NASA astronauts trained immersed in a foreign culture and language. Add to this the fact that many NASA managers and support people were likewise experiencing lifestyle disruptions and heavy workloads, and the psychological aspect became as important as any physical aspect.

Up until Shuttle-Mir, most NASA astronauts were able to consider the physical risks before their flights. They could put [the risk] into perspective and launch with happy hearts. When dangerous situations occurred suddenly, they were usually over quickly. Even in the frightening case of Apollo 13, the crisis lasted only a few days.

With long-duration spaceflight, danger always exists; and living long in danger’s presence increases one’s awareness of it. Yet, for the most part, the Mir astronauts were able to adjust to this awareness—and even to add to their confidence in Mir’s overall safety. For example, about the collision incident that occurred during NASA-5, Mike Foale described his feelings.

"It was frightening for one or two seconds," he said. "The first thought was—are we going to die instantly because of air rushing out so that we couldn’t control it? It was obvious within two or three seconds that the air wasn’t rushing out. Then we thought we had time, and I heard the pressure dropping. Immediately from that point, I thought ‘Oh, this is a surprisingly robust station.’"

Meanwhile on the ground, Frank Culbertson and other managers faced the danger from their perspectives. They not only had to assess the risks, but they had to assure critics in Congress and elsewhere that their assessments were correct.

Sensory deprivation is another key factor in long-duration spaceflight. It manifests itself in many ways. The first sensory element to go is the pull of gravity and its physical comfort of rootedness. On shorter Shuttle flights, the lack of gravity often remains a pleasant novelty. But, combined with the other factors, microgravity could add to a long-duration astronaut’s discomfort. However, most of the Mir astronauts reported enjoying microgravity. John Blaha said he didn’t miss the pull of gravity at all. Andy Thomas wrote that microgravity was "the one thing that makes spaceflight both interesting and, at the same time, very frustrating . . . It can be a joy to experience, but [it] also can really make your work day difficult."

An astronaut’s sense of time could also be affected. Sunrise and sunset alternate every 45 minutes. The sleep-and-wake cycle could come to feel arbitrary. And, when one is working long hours without refreshing breaks, the passage of time could seem to expand or contract. Worse, the amount of time left in a mission could become difficult to gauge. Yet, the Mir astronauts did not relate any real problems. Jerry Linenger wrote from Mir that "life in space is never monotonous."

But, the kind of deprivation that most affected Mir astronauts was social deprivation—being away from one’s culture and family for such an extended period. Norm Thagard talked about missing his American cultural and linguistic environment. John Blaha said what he really missed most was his wife.

Deprivation of meaningful work—or, conversely, of refreshing rest—also affected the U.S. Mir astronauts. Norm Thagard had to wait for many of his science experiments to arrive, and the Russians did not allow him much interaction with Mir’s control systems. In the words of NASA psychologist Al Holland, "The situation of work underload is one of the worst situations you can ask a high-achieving, bright, interested astronaut to subject himself to."

Other astronauts went many days without much rest, working mainly on menial tasks such as cleanup, when they weren’t working on their American science projects. Those experiments were very important to the American astronauts. Mike Foale said, "I loved the greenhouse experiment. It didn’t matter that the shrubs were tiny . . . I enjoyed being a bee pollinating plants.

I enjoyed looking at [the plants] every morning for about 10 to 15 minutes. It was a moment of quiet time, almost. It was a moment where it was nice and bright and almost sunny in a module [Kristall] that had no power for about two months." Foale was dubbed "Farmer Foale" by the ground-based science team for his persistence in keeping the plants alive under trying conditions.

Mir astronauts did engage in exercise and recreational activities. Shannon Lucid read books. John Blaha watched videos. Andy Thomas sketched.

With long-duration spaceflight, an astronaut does not have the freedom to go where he or she wants to, and when he or she wants to, and no one can "drop in" to see him or her. A spur-of-the-moment walk becomes a thing of the past—and, hopefully, of the future. Jerry Linenger wrote in a letter to his son, "A simple walk would be fine. Or a paddle in the canoe. Indoors won’t do. Need fresh air. Need to feel a breeze . . . the sound of wind through the trees overhead."

Before Shuttle-Mir, the Russians had years of experience with long-duration spaceflight. They had developed rigorous methods of selecting Mir crews and were able to give their selected crews psychological training. General Yuri Glaskov, Deputy Commander at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, described one of the training methods. He said, "We put our crewmembers into . . . an isolation chamber. I had to myself be in this chamber for 14 days.

It is called . . . ‘alone in public.’ Everybody is watching you, but you can’t see anybody. There are certain psychological nuances there because you fight yourself."

Glaskov also experienced a 35-day ground test of the Mir orbital station. He said, "At that time, there were two of us; but the hatches were closed, and we were absolutely alone for 35 days. This experience created different problems. Here, we had to tolerate each other, forgive each other, and supplement each other’s faults or experiences. . . . One person doesn’t like certain traits of another [person], and so you have to learn to adapt to each other."

NASA’s Shuttle-Mir astronauts were basically volunteers. While that eliminated the value of a selection process, it did give NASA psychological scientists the opportunity to observe—and to support—a range of personalities during the seven-mission program. NASA Psychologist Al Holland said, "It’s really probably good that we weren’t allowed to do selection in our usual manner beforehand, but we had to work with the people who were assigned to us to fly—because in that way we learned a lot more."

NASA’s "flight docs" and managers worked to make the Mir astronauts’ missions as normal as possible, with things like weekly talks with family and friends; "surprise packages" coming up on Progress resupply vehicles; ham radio conversations with friends, family, and even strangers; and the crew on-orbit support system, a laptop computer and compact disks that included items such as special greetings that were timed to coincide with an astronaut’s birthday.

So, what was learned about psychology during the Shuttle-Mir experience? In the opinion of both the Russian crewmembers and American astronauts who served during Shuttle-Mir, greater attention needs to be given to matters of the psychological compatibility of crewmembers. For this, a longer training period should be carried out for each crew. And, joint training sessions for survival under extreme conditions would also help.

Holland pointed to the entire supporting organization. "One of the things that was astounding to me was that, traditionally, we had this focus on the individual. . .. We were thinking that’s where you need to put your effort. In the Mir series, what was so striking was the influence of the organizational policies and the organizational context on the individual’s psychological health. . .. There were just so many organizational lessons that were learned . . . in terms of policies and procedures," he said.

"Basically, NASA had to learn how to deploy people and their families, and [to] make sure that people got back and forth without a lot of problems. NASA’s not like the military. It never had before deployed people for long periods of time in foreign countries, so there was no infrastructure at all to do that. We just gave them a ticket and sent them over there."

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