Loughborough University: Researchers to quiz astronauts about their mental health during space travel

Researchers are preparing to launch a new project to assess the emotional resilience of astronauts and analyse why spending time in space has a detrimental impact on mental health.

The team from Loughborough University will interview men and women who have been involved in European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA programmes over the past 50 years – including those who have been into orbit.

The project, funded by the British Academy and Leverhulme, began on June 1, and focuses on emotional health – a previously unresearched area of space science. Emotional health is fundamental to mental wellbeing and cognitive function.

The consequences of overlooking emotion are well-documented in terrestrial healthcare systems which include patients feeling ill-at-ease, controlled and alienated, said project lead Dr Patrick Stacey.

And with humans expected to land on Mars within the next two decades (according to NASA), being mentally prepared could be just as important as being technologically ready.

Dr Stacey said: “The public perception is that astronauts are bullet-proof. Yet, there is a catalogue of mental health incidents amongst astronauts since the 1960s.

“Buzz Aldrin and Lisa Nowak are oft-cited examples, succumbing to alcoholism and attempted assault respectively. Recent studies have shown that when aboard the ISS, there is a phase when most astronauts suffer an emotional slump.

“Imagine being Mars-bound, with no Earth in sight – this phase would be more pronounced and last longer. We need to investigate this to ensure we can still be emotional human beings while maintaining enough resilience to perform and succeed.”

Dr Stacey said that many astronauts experience poor mental health despite their military-grade training, extensive monitoring and various interventions.

He added that the ongoing prevalence of mental health disorders suggests that the current support available is not effective and may even constitute part of the problem.

The new project – which includes Loughborough colleagues Dr Dan Sage, Dr Martin Sykora, Dr Suzanne Elayan and Nina Jorden – will also seek to collaborate with the UK Space Agency and Space Centre.

Dr Stacey said: “We aim to produce and disseminate insights that can make a real difference to the quality of life and cognitive efficacy of work in outer space as well as on Earth.

“If we can understand emotional coping in an extreme setting such as space, then we can translate it for similarly extreme environments such as deep-sea fishers and submariners.”