What Does Space Travel Do to Your Mind? NASA's Resident Psychiatrist Reveals All.

Space travel is tough on the human body. But what does it do to the human mind? Gary Beven, a space psychiatrist at NASA, answers our questions about how humans adapt to space, and what we have to do to go to Mars.

Doctor Gary Beven has to have one of the most surprising careers in science. As he puts it, he's "the fifth full-time NASA civil servant psychiatrist since the beginning of the human space program, the first being hired in the 1980s at the onset of the Space Shuttle Program." Becoming an astronaut is a mentally, emotionally, and physically demanding job that's done at high risk around insanely expensive equipment. It pays to see how this job can be made psychologically easier for everyone involved. But how does one even start out as a space psychiatrist? I asked Doctor Beven.

He said:

Prior to the 1980s psychiatrists involved with the space program were primarily consultants from the military. Almost all of my NASA predecessors were US Air Force flight surgeons and experts in aviation and aerospace psychiatry before working at Johnson Space Center. Similarly, my experience as a military flight surgeon naturally led to an interest in human spaceflight and then led to my current job which began at JSC in 2005. I work at JSC with another psychiatrist, Dr. Ronald Moomaw, a NASA contractor and medical school faculty member from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston who is also a former US Air Force flight surgeon.

What Does Space Travel Do to Your Mind? NASA's Resident Psychiatrist Reveals All.

So to start out, you have to be a medical professional for people who get their feet off the ground, even when they're keeping them well within Earth's atmosphere. But while NASA was operating since 1958, it took them twenty-odd years to get a full-time staff with a focus on space psychiatry in particular. I looked for the reason for this long delay, and found an article from 1971, which stated that many inside the space program were skeptical about the need for psychiatry in space. It states that "The vast majority of aerospace doctors see no reason for a specialist in psychological medicine during a flight. They argue that astronauts are essentially self-selecting individuals whose experience and skill in aviation fit them for their role and whose ability to complete the training program excludes the possibility that they may not be able to cope under pressure." What changed in the 1980s that caused NASA to bring in a full-time psychiatrist? According to Beven, experience in aviation wasn't enough when missions kept getting longer and longer.

He continued:

The first space station mission in history, on Salyut 1, was launched by the Soviet Union in 1971. NASA's three Skylab missions in the early 1970's, lasting up two months, did not appear to produce any significant behavioral health deterioration in the crews. So at that time, space psychiatry as a field did not appear to be needed.

It was not until Russian cosmonauts began experiencing significant psychological health decrements during missions spanning six months or more on Salyut 6 and Salyut 7 that it became clear that spaceflight mission specific behavioral health expertise was needed. The Russians developed the first (albeit rudimentary by today's standards) psychological support monitoring and countermeasures program for long duration spaceflight missions. This produced a group of experienced Russian personnel, primarily psychologists, dedicated to monitoring the behavioral health of cosmonauts during spaceflight. At that time, NASA had no counterpart because it was not needed for supporting Space Shuttle flights of up to two weeks.

While the US and Russia started as competitors in the space race, and while competition and national pride are still a part of any national space program, concern for astronaut health crossed national barriers. According to Beven, it was the reports of the experiences of the Russian cosmonauts that inspired NASA to start a similar program for US astronauts going on ever-lengthening missions.

What Does Space Travel Do to Your Mind? NASA's Resident Psychiatrist Reveals All.S

He said:

When NASA began the Shuttle-Mir Program in the mid 1990s (seven astronauts flew long duration missions on Mir) the Johnson Space Center Behavioral Health and Performance program was founded, based on awareness of the Russian psychological support program and the anecdotally reported problems experienced by cosmonauts on Salyut and earlier Mir missions. Several of the NASA astronauts on Mir described adverse psychological impact, particularly feelings of isolation and depression. These initial experiences were used to further develop the JSC BHP program and have helped it evolve into what it has become today.

Today, the Behavioral Health and Performance program, which includes Dr. Moomaw, two NASA psychologists, and dedicated contract employees, works with anyone involved in the space program. They help members of the crew who, despite being on the ground, are in a demanding job. They also reach out to the families of astronauts, helping them cope with any stresses that might come up. Primarily, though, Beven's group works with the astronauts out on the International Space Station.

What Does Space Travel Do to Your Mind? NASA's Resident Psychiatrist Reveals All.S

Says Beven:

I am involved in the medical and psychiatric screening of astronaut candidates, the training of assigned ISS crew members, and evaluating ISS astronauts pre-flight, inflight, and post-flight. During each six month ISS mission a NASA psychologist colleague and I meet with each crew member every two weeks via a private video conference called a Private Psychological Conference. Speaking to the crew on orbit is always a unique privilege. We use the brief time allotted for the conferences to check on the behavioral health and well being of the crew, learn from their experience, and impart any lessons learned from prior crew members we have worked with. I am currently working on my 20th ISS mission.

With twenty missions under his belt, he has a lot of practical experience with astronauts. Since space travel and psychiatry are two areas that are mined, often incorrectly, for drama, I ask what he has found to be the biggest misconceptions of psychiatry and space travel. Generally, it is the drama that's the problem. Even in the 1990s, when the first NASA astronauts went up on Mir, their main problems were isolation and depression, not dramatic behavioral issues or space-based illness.

Beven explained:

One misconception is a concern or theory that the spaceflight environment may be inherently harmful or hazardous, from a psychological standpoint. Sustained life in microgravity on board a space vehicle does not appear to cause psychological decrement or psychiatric symptoms unique to that environment.

Any previously reported behavioral health problems have appeared to occur because of common earth bound issues. For instance, placing crews that have potential personality conflicts in a smaller space station environment, with few recreational outlets, and then overwork them or not provide enough meaningful work to do. This type of scenario may have led to the some of the difficulties reported on the Salyut stations by the cosmonaut pioneers in long duration spaceflight beyond six months.

What Does Space Travel Do to Your Mind? NASA's Resident Psychiatrist Reveals All.

The problem was, primarily, that people were housed in conditions that would make them depressed if they were on Earth. The environment needed to be adjusted. As soon as it was, morale improved. Beven is confident that the ISS can currently provide "adequate sleep, healthy and good tasting food, exercise, meaningful work, leisure time, the availability of social and recreational events - music, movies, contact with family and friends - privacy, adequate space, and a supportive ground team." In fact, when I asked him what surprised him most about his studies in space psychiatry it was that, "with six properly selected and well trained crew members in a relatively large living and working space, astronauts and cosmonauts truly thrive in such a spaceflight environment." He says that after about six weeks, people aboard the space station have adjusted to their environment and wish that they could stay longer. Twelve month missions are being planned because people aren't eager to go home.

Staying longer, though, may give the public a level of confidence in long-haul space travel that isn't deserved. Beven cautioned:

Ironically, the ISS may not be a true analog for deep space exploration in which a crew may be in a smaller vehicle for up to 2.5 years - a Mars mission - at least in its current configuration and operational use. We may see some surprises that are yet unanticipated during 12 month missions as very few individuals have experienced spaceflight for such duration. At present, just four men, all cosmonauts, have lived in space for more than one year-the longest mission being 437 days on Mir.

And a long haul flight will not be like the International Space Station, as Beven says it would be a "supreme challenge" to outfit a deep-space mission with the same comforts.

What Does Space Travel Do to Your Mind? NASA's Resident Psychiatrist Reveals All.S

The most recent simulation involving such a long-term journey is the Mars 500. The European Space Agency and the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems put a group of astronauts in a trailer for 520 days, to simulate the length of a mission to Mars. The project was simultaneously understandable and a little funny. Obviously, the international team of astronauts did an admirable thing, participating in an informative study at some sacrifice to themselves. At the same time, there's some absurdity in a group of highly dedicated people, shut up in a little room, pretending to go to Mars. There's been a long debate about such long-term simulations, how necessary they are and how accurate their results will be.

Dr Beven points out the practical advantages of the project, mentioning, "the Mars 500 study included closely monitoring the sleep/wake cycle of each crew member using a device called an Actiwatch (worn like a wrist watch) and also measured how concentration and reaction time varied during the mission using a test called the Psychomotor Vigilance Task." He also points out that there are a lot of different "simulators," out there, including isolation chambers, submarines, and polar expeditions. All different types of simulations, he thinks, "have their place."

What Does Space Travel Do to Your Mind? NASA's Resident Psychiatrist Reveals All.S

In the end, there's no science that isn't about looking towards the future. Space science has to peer further than most. I ask him what he thinks the future of space psychiatry is. Like many people today, he's looking to Mars, and talks about a Mars crew that would spend six months in a space craft, and one and a half years on the planet itself. "Such a crew," he said, "would have to be substantially autonomous and independent, especially due to the up to 40 minute time delay for communications because of the extreme distance."

Beven also mentioned the necessity testing for "cognitive decline" — both by the medical officer and as an autonomous "suite of countermeasures" built into the IT system so that each of the crew can privately check. He noted that we'd need stock up this space craft with "optimal pharmacological agents to treat the development of potential psychiatric symptoms in the crew medical kit." Still, he's optimistic that all this can be done. "Our team is currently working with researchers in these areas looking toward the future of human spaceflight," he enthused. I think we're all looking forward to that.

Top Image: NASA

Endeavor over Johnson Space Center Image: NASA

Atlantis and Mir Image: NASA

International Space Station Image: NASA

Interior ISS: NASA

Mars 500 Image: ESA

Mars Image: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems