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
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
"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
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."