The Sciences

Personal Space

By Rachel PreiserMay 1, 1997 12:00 AM


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The United States is undoubtedly the technological leader in the space station project, but Russia clearly has the edge when it comes to psychology. The average space shuttle mission is two weeks long--time enough for fiddling around with a few satellites, doing an experiment or two, and dropping down into the atmosphere before the blood thins out or the bones turn brittle. The average stay on the Russian space station, Mir, however, is six months. Cosmonauts have learned nothing if not how to survive long periods cooped up two to six at a time in a living space akin to a crowded mobile home.

Now that space station crews can look forward to spending many months, and even years, working within the confines of artificial life support, this expertise may turn out to be at least as important to the project as any technology. The diverse cultures of the crew members can only serve to magnify psychological pitfalls.

At least the Russians have learned to take space psychology seriously. According to Oleg Olegovitch Ryumin, a psychologist with the Russian Space Agency, certified psychologists are present at all important training sessions, just watching and thinking and trying to acquaint themselves with the personality of each cosmonaut. They have found that cosmonauts tend to become lethargic, dispirited, and in some cases downright depressed after as little as two months in space unless specific steps are taken to boost their morale. Part of the problem is the lack of familiar surroundings and comforts that can help ward off the blues. You can’t run out and get a pizza or watch your favorite tv program, says former astronaut Norm Thagard, who spent four months on Mir in 1995. Cosmonauts making the trip up to Mir bring a care package of books, fruits, magazines, and assorted delicacies. To keep them from feeling isolated, they are also allowed to talk with family members, doctors, and other people on the ground. And they have tried to grow everything from tulips to radishes on Mir (the tulips didn’t fare well, but the radishes were apparently quite tasty, though a bit oddly shaped).

In the American program, by contrast, psychological training seems to be an afterthought. Even though NASA’s 120-person astronaut corps is six times larger than Russia’s, NASA employs only four psychologists to Russia’s 30. It’s no surprise that U.S. astronauts also tend to give psychology short shrift. My attitude is that you can put up with anything for six months, says Norm Thagard. I had thought before I went up there-- and nothing happened to change my mind--that psychological factors are not very important until the missions get to be six months and longer.

The Russians even go so far as to vet cosmonauts for compatibility. They are put in spaceflight simulators for days at a time, while psychologists observe how they respond to and communicate with one another and how they react to stressful situations. Each cosmonaut is also subjected to a test, not unlike a video game, in which two cosmonauts sit at separate control panels and, by turning knobs and dials, try to bring a single indicator needle to zero. The idea is to find out whether cosmonauts can achieve a sort of intuitive state of mutual cooperation without succumbing to feelings of frustration or competition. Psychologists even monitor the heartbeats of the cosmonauts to see if they tend to synchronize--a sign, they believe, of strong compatibility. (As part of the Russian leg of his training, Thagard took the compatibility test. It was fun, but I didn’t really see the point, he says.)

NASA took a stab at addressing the issue of compatibility on the space station when it commissioned anthropologist Mary Lozano in 1992 to investigate the kinds of cultural differences that would be most significant for international crews on long-duration missions. She distributed a questionnaire to 74 astronauts from NASA and the Canadian, European, and Japanese space agencies. She asked them questions like, When speaking directly with persons of the opposite sex, how uncomfortable would you be if they touch you while speaking? The astronauts also had to note what annoyed them most about foreigners who spoke their language. Lozano found personal hygiene to be problematic. Technically, astronauts can shower aboard the station, but unfolding the plastic cylindrical shower and drying it afterward with a squeegee to prevent mildew may be more trouble to some crew members than it’s worth. Lozano found that the Japanese felt Americans paid too much attention to hair care and grooming, while Americans were surprised by the Japanese indifference to brushing and flossing. At the same time, Americans found the French excessively vain about their personal appearance. Mealtime decorum was another sore point, since European astronauts felt that Americans did not appreciate the ritual of eating. Americans, on the other hand, were appalled by the fuss European astronauts made over food.

Food may turn out to be the touchiest issue of all. The culinary policy on the space station--mixed menus for mixed crews--will call for flexibility on all sides. American astronauts accustomed to being able to choose their own menus on shuttle flights may have the most difficult adjustments to make. When Thagard arrived on Mir for his four-month stay, he was dismayed to find the Russians amply stocked with canned fish-in- aspic which he, like most of his compatriots, cannot stomach. And who would want to wake up to jellied pike-perch (think gefilte fish), which greeted Shannon Lucid on her sixth day on Mir (though she reportedly liked it). There’s a buckwheat gruel the Russians have--we have yet to find an American astronaut who rated that very high, deadpans Vickie Kloeris, a microbiologist and food specialist at NASA. Russians, on the other hand, are repulsed by American steamed green beans, mushrooms, buttered carrots, and plain vegetables in general. Although Yuri Usachev, one of Shannon Lucid’s Russian crewmates, claims to like American space food, he reported his favorite item on the menu to be the mayonnaise.

The notion of astronauts struggling to get along may be amusing, but the issue is no joke. Squabbling among crew members on Mir played some role in cutting short several all-Russian missions in the 1970s and 1980s. What does that mean for the culturally heterogeneous space station? The international participants are currently hammering out selection criteria for assuring compatible crews, but Thagard, for one, is skeptical. I don’t think anyone really knows how to pick people in advance and guarantee that they are going to get along.

Despite these problems, NASA psychologist Al Holland is hopeful that the professional excitement of the crew members will help overcome cultural barriers. Culture is a big deal, he says, but there are professional similarities that form a third culture--an aviation and spaceflight culture--that has a kind of leveling effect.

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