Rick Robinson

Mar 18th 2020

Space Psychology: Psychosomatic Illness and Beyond


The medical and health challenges of human spaceflight are as demanding as the more obvious technological challenges of spacecraft design. Rocket science is rooted in basic physics, while space medicine must deal with the full complexity of the human organism and its environment.

And nothing is more complex than the human mind, which makes the psychological effects of space travel the trickiest and the least fully understood aspect of the entire enterprise of space flight. With psychological stress, psychosomatic illness and instances of potentially dangerous behavior, space flight imposes human challenges that could lead to catastrophic mishaps. Yet, at the same time, the experience of space flight can be healthful, even spiritually moving.

Human Factors

A NASA discussion of the human body in space identifies four major challenge areas for space medicine. Two of them — space radiation and changes in gravity — deal with specific environmental conditions that spacecraft and their crews encounter and must be able to deal with.

Third is the hostile and closed environment, which involves other physical features of the space environment, as well as a spacecraft’s onboard environment that allows the crew to survive. Aboard a spaceship, there is no opening a window to let the bad air out. Everything has to recirculate.

The fourth challenge area is isolation and confinement — which goes straight to the psychological dimension. In space, you are a long, long way from home, and there is nowhere you can go to get away from your crew mates.

These conditions are not unique to space travel either. Submarine crews and Antarctic researchers are also exposed to isolation and confinement. But in space, it all comes together, from radiation and gravity changes to confinement in a tin can, and these conditions persist until you return to Earth.

Psychosomatic Illness and Mass Delusion

So far, no space mission has been lost due to psychological breakdown or disorders. But over the years, there have been incidents that hint at the potential psychological risks of space flight.

According to Scientific American, a 1970s-era Russian mission was cut short when the crew reported a strong odor aboard their Soyuz spacecraft. No physical cause was ever found, and it has been suggested that mass “delusion” was the culprit.

Just as psychosomatic illness can produce real symptoms with no detectable physical cause, the crew may have reacted to the stress of the mission by a shared but spurious experience of smelling “something off.”

In another case, when a payload specialist aboard a U.S. Shuttle mission became frustrated by the failure of an experiment, he briefly mentioned refusing to return to Earth.

Astronaut Henry Hartsfield Jr. related that a crew had “one payload specialist that became obsessed with the hatch” and even once said, “You mean all I got to do is turn that handle and the hatch opens and all the air goes out?” Hartsfield noted, “It was kind of scary … so we began to lock the hatch.”

Ground Control to Major Tom

These psychological challenges of space flight are not entirely a surprise. Indeed, popular culture even foresaw them. As Groovy History recounts, David Bowie’s classic hit “Space Oddity,” inspired by the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, was released in July 1969, a few days before Apollo 11 left for the Moon.

The lyrics powerfully capture the psychological effects of space travel, especially the loneliness of watching Earth recede into the distance. (And, as the American Psychological Association notes, we do not yet know the psychological effects of watching the blue dot dwindle into a star-like speck as it would for the crew of a mission to Mars.)

Yet, even as the stresses, fears and vast loneliness of space flight weigh on our imagination, studies have also indicated that space flight has characteristics that are salutogenic, contributing positively to health and well-being, according to Scientific American. A survey of astronauts and cosmonauts even found that space travel is “a meaningful experience whose effects endure for some time postflight.”

And, in a way, this fact brings us full circle. Space travel is, after all, a creation of the human mind: We go because we are willing to take a chance to embrace the vastness of the universe rather than turn our back on it.