Taking a journey away from your homeland can make you excited and at the same time anxious, the same with the idea of taking a flight away from mother Earth. Separation anxiety, feeling like you want to jump out of the vehicle and just come back, can jeopardize space mission. Even the multi-million dollar space vehicle that serves as your residence cannot make you feel at ease and comfortable. It instead makes you feel isolated and trapped in the dark emptiness that surrounds you. This reality when in the outer space can take your mind to the brink of sanity.
Everyday stress experienced by astronauts can affect the success of their mission.
Dancing Fairy (Visual Hallucination)
Astronauts experience frequent hallucinations. They report seeing flashes of light that looks like dancing fairies. They see this even during their busy hours, doing their work, and while in the confines of their sleeping stations. Scientists make a study regarding this issue and experiments were done which made them think that the dancing fairy effects could be caused by cosmic rays.
Phantom Smell (Olfactory Hallucination)
Crews of the 1976 Russian Soyuz-21 mission have to be brought back to the Earth earlier because of concern of leak or technical problems. The crews smell something while aboard the space station (Salyut-5), but when being checked upon their return, no odor or any technical issues were found.
During the investigation, it seems that crews reported experiencing psychological problems and had some interpersonal issues. This led NASA to consider that the incident was probably caused by hallucination.
Exhaustion and disagreement caused the crews of the Skylab 4 mission to switch off their radio and ignore NASA for a day. They just watch Earth pass by.
Incidents like the above make scientists study the possible effects of being confined in simulated missions. How being in isolation for months to more than a year affect stress level and result in a myriad of psychological issues.
Scientists observe how the brain functions when on a mission outside of Earth’s atmosphere. They found that some of the primary function (task switching, attention, body coordination, and problem-solving) do not work well while an astronaut is in space. It is assumed that this could be due to the limited physical activity. Even when on Earth, reduced physical activity could over time affect mental abilities.
Gravity could also play a role in the changes in brain activity. Being in gravity-free space affect blood flow. Compared to when on Earth, oxygen supply to the brain might not be as efficient due to the effect of gravity.
Keeping Sanity In Space
Aerospace psychiatry serves as the mental health support for spacemen.
Watching astronauts from our television set make me look at them to be the best of the best, in mental intelligence and physical fitness. They are the men picked from the best selection of great men. But even them are not exempted from losing their mind for a while when not in the confine of their comfort zone (the Earth).
Upon coming back to Earth, noticeable signs of psychological distress from a prolonged time spent on the mission, living in tight quarters, spurred the establishment of space psychology. Teams of psychiatrists ensure to monitor, support, and re-establish psychiatric well-being of astronauts while and after the mission.
Life in space is harsh compared to the stress and loneliness we experience living on Earth. Well-fit astronauts even admitted that with their experience, they discovered that they are not psychologically prepared to be in such a mission. Hallucinations happen, anxiety and depression creep in due to isolation, lack of social communication and leisure activities, and (could be) gravity effect.
Life After Space Travel
Astronauts who make it safe home receive psychological support and help to adjust again to their life on Earth’s ground. They may decide not to fly back, or it may take them some time to determine if they would want to leave Earth again or do something else.
Keeping sanity while out of Earth’s grounds is hard to maintain, that behavioral and psychological support must be considered. Having some form of activities, hobbies, entertainment can help them adjust, unwind, and de-stress. Keeping the astronauts’ sound mind is essential when being sent to outer space to make their mission a success.