Long-Term Space Travel and Psychological Issues

The exploration of space is one of the strategic goals humanity is likely to focus on in the nearest future. Astronauts have traveled to the Moon and have spent months during quite lasting spaceflights. It has been acknowledged that long-term space travel is associated with various adverse psychological effects (Anderson, 2015). The greatest issue is the deterioration of different organs and systems. Such health conditions as balance disorders, muscle atrophy, immune system deterioration, and so on are often associated with space travel. Radiation, weightlessness, confinement, and loneliness are major factors affecting people’s health. These issues are addressed in different ways, but scientists are still unsure whether these measures can be successful during long-term space travel (to Mars, for example) (De la Torre, 2014). It is essential to understand the major effects of space travel on human psychology to develop efficient methods and strategies to enable people to carry out lasting space missions.

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Psychological Issues

One of the major issues that occur is associated with sleep patterns in space. People have the biological clock that detects the change in seasons and time of the day, which is essential for the development of proper sleep patterns (Basner et al., 2013). Moreover, physical activity is an important factor affecting people’s sleep. Weightlessness and no changes of daylight affect people’s health, and astronauts often feel fatigued due to the lack of sleep and the low quality of sleep (Chambers & Fried, 2015). Their performance decreases, and astronauts’ emotional state is also affected. When they do not have sufficient rest, and their sleep patterns are impaired, astronauts become more nervous and more emotional. Clearly, such psychological states are quite dangerous in confined areas such as spaceships.

Confinement is another significant issue astronauts have to deal with. People have to work with a very small number of colleagues for weeks and months. First, spaceflights were quite short, and astronauts traveled in quite homogeneous teams (Shipman, 2013). For instance, the first astronauts were pilots who shared similar values and had quite similar interests. They also had a great goal to bring humanity to a different level of development. At present, the teams are very diverse. People of different occupations, cultural, and educational backgrounds often have to work and live together. These people have different values, goals, and interests as these can be pilots, scientists, or even space tourists. Clearly, the need to be in such homogeneous but unchangeable groups is stressful, and various conflicts often occur.

Apart from confinement to a particular group of people, physical confinement is also a considerable issue. It has been acknowledged that astronauts experience stress due to the lack of private space (Peldszus, Dalke, Pretlove, & Welch, 2014). People need diverse environments to feel well. Working in an office may seem boring and frustrating, but going to different places or even a travel home can help reduce stress. These options are unavailable to astronauts, which increases the stress they experience.

Monotony is another serious issue individuals face during space travel. Astronauts often have certain tasks to complete during their flights (Peldszus et al., 2014). These tasks are often monotonous. Although astronauts have some physical training, as well as some free time, the confinement mentioned above reduces the number of options. The monotony (in conjunction with confinement) makes people have detrimental effects on people’s psychological wellbeing. Furthermore, different types of personalities experience monotony in different ways. For example, extraverts can experience more negative feelings because of monotony (Peldszus et al., 2014). Nevertheless, since the group that takes part in space travel often consists of highly motivated professionals, monotony can be even more stressful for them compared to survival (Peldszus et al., 2014).

Although the monotony might seem like an unimportant issue at first, in can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness, since astronauts are separated from their family and communicate with a very narrow circle of other astronauts, it may result in reduced communication because the crew has to see the same individuals and complete the same tasks every day (Peldszus et al., 2014). Thus, the feeling of isolation grows, but astronauts cannot overcome it because of the restrictions of space travel.

Due to the stress that astronauts face during the adaptation and other activities linked to space exploration, many of them begin to experience anxiety, depression, and insomnia (Anderson, 2015). As it was already mentioned, astronauts suffered from poor sleep and transformed sleeping habits, which were the main causes of depression. One should also bear in mind that during their missions, astronauts have to miss important events at home, such as births of children or deaths of relatives; this results in increased stress that is also fueled by insomnia and isolation (Anderson, 2015). Thus, space travels are highly demanding and challenging, both physically and psychologically.

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Cognitive Impairments

Another problem that needs to be addressed is the influence of space radiation on the neurological system. Cucinotta, Alp, Sulzman, and Wang (2014) point out that neurocognitive tasks could be adversely affected by HZE-particles. This, in return, could interfere with astronauts’ possibility to perform executive functions. Furthermore, other studies where animals were used to test the influence of radiation on cognitive skills proved HZE exposure had led to molecular changes that could also be observed in aged animals (Cucinotta et al., 2014). Limited evidence also showed that radiation could lead to increased neuroinflammation, which could result in Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s diseases (Cucinotta et al., 2014). Nevertheless, since these studies were only conducted on animals, additional research is needed to evaluate whether space radiation can lead to such severe cognitive diseases in humans. Synergetic interactions changed by different factors such as microgravity, exposure to radiation, conflicts, and confinement can also alter the learning skills and memory of astronauts (Cucinotta et al., 2014).

If astronauts who work on the International Space Station (ISS) can return home once their task is completed or if they experience health problems, those who will travel to colonize Mars, for example, will not have such an opportunity. Therefore, it is yet unclear how damaging space radiation can be for cognitive skills, and if this damage is permanent or temporary. Furthermore, psychological support for such astronauts will also need to focus on the awareness that Mars astronauts will never return to the Earth. This awareness, together with exposure to radiation, sleep deprivation, communicational issues, and emotional problems, can lead to severe cognitive impairments in one-way space travelers. As of today, more researches are conducted to evaluate astronauts’ behavior and functionality on long-term missions (Cucinotta et al., 2014). Since it is yet not fully known how long-term missions (more than two years) will influence astronauts (and spaceships), one can assume that psychologists and behaviorists who study behavior in space need to pay additional attention to possible cognitive impairments.

The cognitive impairments are dangerous not only because they are harmful to astronauts themselves. If astronauts are incapable of performing their duties, the whole mission and those subordinate to the captain of the ship might be in danger. Although it is clear that astronauts are trained for such events, it is still difficult to guess how the situation will be perceived in space and not during the training. Additional stress and inadequate behavior can emerge if not addressed correctly (Anderson, 2015).

Another cognitive aspect that can be impaired during space travel is attention. Attention is especially crucial for astronauts; it is “a selection-based process required to maintain an external or internal event” (De la Torre, 2014, p. 289). Since the central nervous system (CNS) is directly influenced by many factors, including microgravity, cognitive functions can be affected and decrease astronauts’ performance (De la Torre, 2014). According to the existing research, the decline in attention can be stress-related. Of course, several tests are used to assess astronauts’ cognitive skills and functions, such as, for example, MINICOG or AGARD (De la Torre, 2014). The Spaceflight Cognitive Assessment Tool for Windows (WinSCAT) is the test that is used today during space operations; it focuses on different abilities (e.g., attention, math, and memory) (De la Torre, 2014). It is performed every 30 days at the ISS (De la Torre, 2014).

Psychiatric issues are also directly linked to cognitive problems and impairments. Space and analog mission showed that chronic isolation sometimes led to depression, psychosomatic problems, and the feeling of feebleness. Frustration could also increase among the crew. A condition known as “asthenia” is not recognized in the American DSM but is used by Russian astronauts to address the feelings of fatigue, dizziness, and irritability (De la Torre, 2014).

The relationships between ground control and crew can also cause problems, De la Torre (2014) states. Such relationships are of particular importance to long-term missions (to Mars, for example), where delays in communication between crew and ground control can alter the perception of the situation on the spaceship. Ground control will be unable to successfully decode the present issues, especially if dependent on delayed messages (De la Torre, 2014). Many precautions need to be taken into consideration to ensure that any long-term mission will be controlled as efficiently as possible.

Conclusion

Astronauts have to face serious psychological and physiological challenges during their space missions. Specific tests to assess their cognitive functions are designed to address any problems that might be caused by the changes in the environment, social interactions, and other factors related to space exploration. Psychological issues require additional attention and research both from astronauts and researchers since they are directly linked to the crew’s performance and ability to function effectively.

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References

Anderson, R. (2015). The cosmic compendium: Space medicine. New York, NY: Lulu.

Basner, M., Dinges, D. F., Mollicone, D., Ecker, A., Jones, C. W., Hyder, E. C., & Morukov, B. V. (2013). Mars 520-d mission simulation reveals protracted crew hypokinesis and alterations of sleep duration and timing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(7), 2635-2640.

Chambers, R.M., & Fried, R. (2015). Psychological aspects of space flight. In J. H. Brown (Ed.), Physiology of man in space (pp. 175-257). New York, NY: Academic Press.

Cucinotta, F. A., Alp, M., Sulzman, F. M., & Wang, M. (2014). Space radiation risks to the central nervous system. Life Sciences in Space Research, 2(1), 54-69.

De la Torre, G. G. (2014). Cognitive neuroscience in space. Life, 4(3), 281-294.

Peldszus, R., Dalke, H., Pretlove, S., & Welch, C. (2014). The perfect boring situation—addressing the experience of monotony during crewed deep space missions through habitability design. Acta Astronautica, 94(1), 262-276.

Shipman, H. L. (2013). Humans in Space: 21st-century frontiers. New York, NY: Springer.

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