Psychology of Space Exploration: Behavioral Health


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Psychology of Space Exploration: Behavioral Health

An essay produced for NASA’s History Program Office by Albert Harrison & Edna Fiedler.


Experience gained from test pilots, high-altitude balloonists, and animals sent on rocket flights was the starting point for understanding astronaut adaptation and performance in space. Psychology played a significant role in Project Mercury, but before that effort was complete, official interest in such topics as astronaut selection, psychosocial adjustment, group dynamics, and psychological support all but disappeared. Interest was rekindled when astronauts joined cosmonauts on Mir and then became full partners on the International Space Station. We review reasons for this period of minimal involvement in the space program and suggest that the “right stuff” image worked against the field until the mid-1990s, when space station expeditions brought the challenges of long-duration missions into focus. Evidence of renewed interest includes the advent of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, the development of NASA’s Bioastronautics Critical Path Roadmap, and the new Human Research Program. In 2001, Safe Passage: Astronaut Care for Exploration Missions drew attention to behavioral health, a concept of psychosocial adjustment that depends not only an absence of neuropsychiatric dysfunction but on the presence positive interactions with the physical and social environments. We trace the history and current status of astronaut selection and psychological support, two essential ingredients for maintaining behavioral health, from Mercury to the ISS. Behavioral health is important because it reduces risk, helps optimize performance, and contributes to the welfare of astronauts and their families. We conclude with a brief outline for a comprehensive and continuing program in spaceflight behavioral health.


In the 1950s, as America prepared for its first crewed space missions, it was not clear that human performance capabilities could be maintained under the demanding conditions of spaceflight. Where could NASA begin? Much of the research, equipment, and testing procedures used to support test pilots who set successive speed and altitude records transferred easily to the early space program. Decompression chambers, centrifuges, rocket sleds, and the like made it possible to explore the physiological and performance aspects of conditions that would be encountered in space. Craig Ryan has detailed the contributions of high-altitude ballooning, highlighting the usefulness of gondola designs (which he contends provided a basis for the Mercury spacecraft), flight suits, helmets, and much more. Not everything could be “off the shelf”; NASA had to develop elaborate simulators for upcoming space missions. But, on the whole, the same “cast of characters” - engineers, physicians, and psychologists, to mention a few—who brought America to the edge of space brought America into space.

Animal studies gave some reassurance that humans could adapt physiologically and behaviorally to space. As early as the late 1940s, biological specimens were launched on balloons and sounding rockets. In 1958, the Russians successfully launched a dog, Laika, who survived several days in orbit even though she could not be brought back to Earth. Wernher von Braun approached behavioral biologist Joseph V. Brady to see if he would be willing to launch primates, which would leapfrog the Soviets’ dogs. In 1958 and 1959, America’s first primate spacefarers, two squirrel monkeys named Able and Baker (known at that time as Miss Able and Miss Baker) were launched on 15-minute flights reaching an altitude of 300 miles on a 1,500-mile trajectory and were successfully recovered following splashdown.

One of the main questions was whether the test animals could keep their wits about them in the sense that they could do what they had been taught to do during the presumably terrifying rocket rides. Able and Baker were encased in casts to protect them against gravitational changes, but one finger and one toe were exposed so that, after a warning light turned on, the finger could be used to press a lever to avoid a shock to the toe. All the way up and all the way down, they pressed the lever on cue. Later, as a part of the Mercury pretest program, the chimpanzees Ham and Enos received much more elaborate and sophisticated training than did their predecessors. They flew in special couches within Mercury capsules; Ham’s flight was suborbital, but Enos completed four orbits. Although acceleration and deceleration forces in excess of 7 g’s had an immediate effect on the chimpanzees’ performance, once these forces diminished, their performance bounced back to preflight levels. Microgravity did not interfere with visual processes (monitoring the lights), nor did it interfere with eating and drinking. Not only did they perform their assigned tasks in space, but the two chimpanzees also returned to Earth in good health and with their sharply honed skills intact. Looking back at an episode from this era, Joseph Brady recounted:

On the recovery ship, after the helicopter had dropped the capsule once or twice before obtaining a good connection on one of these animal pre-test flights—a good reason for practicing before the human flights—the hatch was opened on the flight deck and the chimp came out sputtering and thrashing about. An admiral standing on the deck with several of us said something like “If that chimp could only talk”, in response to which I felt required to observe that the best thing that ever happened to us was that the chimp could not talk or the space program might have come to an abrupt end right on the spot.

During the early 1960s, the United States and Soviet Russia were locked in a race to the Moon, and in many ways, the two programs paralleled each other. In the United States, solo missions (Mercury) gave way to two-person missions (Gemini) and then to three-person missions (Apollo) that, in July of 1969, brought astronauts to the Moon. The Apollo Applications Program followed close on the heels of the last astronaut’s departure from the Moon. Based on leftover Moon race equipment, the Apollo Applications Program included the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, where Americans and Soviets joined spacecraft to live together briefly in space, and Skylab, America’s “house in space” in the mid-1970s. By the late 1970s, the U.S. and Soviet programs were following different paths: Americans awaited the orbiter, or Space Shuttle, and Soviets launched a series of space stations. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan approved the development of a U.S. space station, but construction was delayed almost 15 years. President Bill Clinton approved the station as a multi-national venture, and it became the International Space Station, or ISS. Prior to its construction, American astronauts joined Russian cosmonauts on Mir; later, they worked together as partners on the ISS. The ISS recently reached its 10th anniversary of having multinational crews living and working in space.

Although psychology played a prominent role in the early U.S. space program, some branches had all but disappeared by 1963. To be sure, psychologists did show professional interest in humans in space, and many panels and commissions sought to increase psychology’s involvement. Since there were practically no studies of astronauts, researchers relied heavily on studies conducted in Antarctica, submarines and research submersibles, and simulators. Research continues in all three venues; Antarctica took an early lead and remained prominent for many years. A primary reason was that International Geophysical “Year” (IGY, 1957–59) stimulated research on human adaptation to isolation and confinement, with the authoritative and influential accounts appearing in the early 1970s.

Other factors that favored Antarctica were the large number of people who ventured there and that, as an international site, it offers opportunities for researchers from many different nations. By picking and choosing research locations, one can find conditions that resemble those of many different kinds of space missions, ranging from relatively luxurious space stations to primitive extraterrestrial camps. In 1963, Robert Voas, one of the early space human factors experts, and E. K. Eric Gunderson, who had conducted pioneering psychological research in Antarctica, seriously discussed developing a space mission simulator there, an idea that reemerges from time to time. By the 1980s, it was recognized widely that Antarctica provided a useful meeting ground for people who were interested in adaptation to polar environments and people who were interested in adaptation to space. In 1987, NASA and the National Science Foundation’s Division of Polar Programs joined together to sponsor the “Sunnyvale Conference,” which brought together researchers from each tradition. Presentations centered on environments (Antarctica and space), theoretical perspectives, isolation and confinement effects, and interventions and outcomes. Antarctic behavioral research became a truly international venture guided in part by the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research and funded by many sources, including NASA. For example, Des Lugg of NASA Headquarters and Joanna Woods at Johnson Space Center conducted medical and psychological research with the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions.

Despite repetitive calls for action, empirical research was slow to accumulate. In the late 1990s, the National Academy of Sciences undertook a comprehensive review of behavioral and medical issues that we need to begin to address right now to prepare for future space missions. We consider the Academy’s report, Safe Passage: Astronaut Care for Exploration Missions, a watershed event. Like earlier calls to action, Safe Passage drew attention to many bio-medical, behavioral, and psychological issues and emphasized their importance for health, performance, and welfare on extended-duration missions. The timing was good because its production and distribution coincided with American missions on board Mir and the first missions to the ISS. Although future-oriented, it was developed in the context of unfolding events on then-contemporary extended-duration missions. Most importantly, this work also introduced the concept of behavioral health, an idea that may be particularly useful because of its breadth and relative lack of pejorative connotations. According to one recent definition, “Compared with earlier formulations (such as mental health), behavioral health is less limited in that it recognizes that effective, positive behavior depends on an interaction with the physical and social environments, as well as an absence of neuropsychiatric dysfunction. Behavioral health is evident not only at the level of the individual, but also at the levels of the group and organization.”

NASA’s recognition of the field of behavioral health and linking of it to performance opened the door for many of the kinds of research that earlier were thought to be too “soft” to be useful to the space program. Today, NASA has shown increased recognition of shared perspectives, privacy, leisure-time activity, family separation and reunification, cultural awareness, the satisfying properties of windows and view ports, and many other topics that were formerly overlooked if not seen as irrelevant or frivolous. From NASA’s perspective, the significance of these factors is less in the fact that they can help people “feel good” (although many psychologists would argue that this is a major benefit) than in their potential impact on risk and performance. This research, in turn, has implications for organizing and staging space missions. Thus, a combination of maturing social science and interest sparked by space station and exploration missions has opened the door, at least partially, for new kinds of psychological research within the U.S. space program. Whether this door will remain open—or slam shut—remains to be seen.


For decades, expanding the role of psychology in the U.S. space program was an uphill battle with psychologists’ pleas generally falling on deaf ears. Among the more obvious interpretations, it might be tempting to think of NASA managers and engineers as “thing” people rather than “people” people, so the behavioral side of spaceflight is of little interest to them. Perhaps mission managers were simply unaware of the significance of behavioral factors. Or maybe, as “hard” scientists, they saw the behavioral and social sciences as fuzzy and inexact efforts that lead to qualitative recommendations that are difficult to implement and unlikely to work. The sociologist Charles Perrow has discussed how resistance to human factors within complex organizations has strong structural and cultural underpinnings and is not overcome easily.

Psychologists make contributions to human welfare in such diverse areas as environmental design, problem-solving, decision-making, leadership, and group performance, but many people strongly associate psychology with mental illness and long-term psychotherapy. If such attitudes explained NASA’s ambivalence about behavioral factors, education would be the antidote; but for many years, educational efforts had little visible impact in research or mission operations.The stereotype of clinical psychologists and psychiatrists working with troubled clients may have threatening implications for NASA administrators who need to maintain good public relations and build government support. The historian Roger Launius points out that from the moment they were introduced to the public in 1959, America was enthralled by the “virtuous, no nonsense, able and professional astronauts” who “put a very human face on the grandest technological endeavor in history” and “represented the very best that we had to offer.” From the beginning, the press was never motivated to dig up dirt on the astronauts; rather, reporters sought confirmation that they embodied America’s deepest virtues. “They wanted to demonstrate to their readers that the Mercury seven strode the Earth as latter-day saviors whose purity coupled with noble deeds would purge this land of the evils of communism by besting the Soviet Union on the world stage.” Today, people look back longingly to a simpler era when good was good and evil was evil, and, at least in memory, heroes did not disappoint. Psychological research or, worse yet, the faintest possibility that a mission would be compromised by psychological factors could be a public relations nightmare.

For project managers and engineers, faith in the right stuff helps cut costs because the person can be engineered out of the equation. This faith simplifies and speeds the design process as there is no need to waste time consulting behavior experts. Sliding by psychological issues preserves autonomy and decision-making power. If behavioral professionals were to serve in an advisory capacity, mission directors would have to share control, or at least seriously consider the opinion of behavioral experts. Why should managers complicate their task by bringing more players—psychologists, psychiatrists, anthropologists, human factors experts—to the table?

For astronauts, the stereotype of the right stuff helps maintain flight status. It deters snooping and prying that might suggest a real or imagined blemish that could lead to mission disqualification, a most undesirable personal consequence. After all, part of the heroic myth is that under the greatest of adversities, people with the right stuff can still get the job done! Why risk all by getting involved in a research program that could lead to new reasons for disqualification? George Low, manager of Project Apollo, advised subordinates that identity issues, past or present, were off-limits and that personal hang-ups should be put aside in favor of the mission. Michael Collins and his colleagues liked the John Wayne–type image created for the early astronauts and did not want it tarnished. Flying in space was a macho, masculine endeavor, and there were those who made an effort to reserve the term “astronaut” for men, referring to women who sought to fly in space as “astronautrix,” “astronettes,” “feminauts,” and “space girls.”

Marc Shepanek points out that today’s astronauts are very much aware of the possible effects of stress, boredom, and many other factors on safety, performance, and quality of life in space. He notes that while many of them favor research on these topics, not all stand ready to volunteer as test subjects. The concern is that despite strong assurances of confidentiality, one of the results of their participation could be disqualification. This means that operational psychologists cannot also conduct research: the role of the therapist or consulting organizational psychologist must remain sacrosanct with no hints of dual allegiance to research. Many kinds of workers, including those in the military and law enforcement, worry about breaches of confidentiality that have adverse repercussions on their careers. Worries about a breach of confidentiality are periodically reinforced by officials who release information despite assurances to the contrary.

Efforts to protect the astronauts’ image are evident in the cordon that NASA public relations and legal teams establish to prevent outsiders from obtaining potentially damaging information, the micromanagement of astronauts’ public appearances, and the great care with which most astronauts comport themselves in public. Even today, there are topics that are considered “too hot” to be included in other-wise comprehensive and informed discussions.

“The right stuff” is an abstraction or ideal type that living, breathing human astronauts approximate but do not fully attain. By the beginning of the 21st century, cracks began to appear in this image. Researchers had long noted behavioral problems in spaceflightlike environments and worried about what might happen during future space missions. Hints of problems came from the Russian space program, which seemed more attuned to the significance of psychological issues. For Americans, conditions that had been heralded since the 1960s became realities in the 1990s when U.S. astronauts joined Russian cosmonauts on Mir, living and working in space for prolonged periods of time with peers from a very different culture. A few astronauts described some of the behavioral challenges that they encountered in space: maintaining high performance in the face of extreme danger, loneliness, and minor conflicts with other crewmembers. On the debit side of the balance sheet, members of isolated and confined groups frequently report sleep disturbances, somatic complaints (aches, pains, and a constellation of flu-like symptoms sometimes known as the “space crud”), heart palpitations, anxiety, mood swings including mild depression, inconsistent motivation, and performance decrements. Crewmembers sometimes withdraw from one another, get into conflicts with each other, or get into disputes with Mission Control. Eugene Cernan reports that the conflicts between the Apollo 7 crew and Mission Control were so severe that the astronauts never flew again. Both Bryan Burrough and Al Holland have described some of the difficulties that U.S. astronauts experienced on Mir. Burrough writes that Soyuz 21 (1976), Soyuz T-14 (1985), and Soyuz TM-2 (1987) were shortened because of mood, performance, and interpersonal issues. Brian Harvey wrote that psychological factors contributed to the early evacuation of a Salyut 7 crew. U.S. researchers and flight surgeons have acknowledged instances of fear, anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, cognitive changes, somatization, impulsive behaviors, social withdrawal, cultural misunderstandings, interpersonal frictions, and anger directed toward Mission Control. After their return, some astronauts reported depression, substance abuse issues, marital discord, and jealousy. Astronauts are highly competent, task-oriented people, who, like other highly functional adults, have the normal ups and downs in their moods and social relationships. And, as in the case of other highly functional adults, these ups and downs can sometimes reduce their effectiveness and relationships.

It is not only the normal ups and downs of the individual astronaut that affect the teams and their work, but also the pressures and occasionally dysfunctional dynamics of the organization and Mission Control. The Mercury astronauts lobbied aggressively to fly as pilots rather than to ride as mere passengers (“Spam in a can”) whose spacecraft were controlled from the ground. H. S. F. Cooper wrote a well-publicized account of conflict between the Skylab 4 crew and Mission Control. At the heart of the matter was the overprogramming of the astronauts’ time. As psychologist Karl Weick described the situation:

To get the most information from this final trip in the Apollo program, ground control in Houston had removed virtually all the slack from the astronauts’ schedule of activities and had treated the men as if they were robots. To get everything in, ground control shortened meal times, reduced setup times for experiments, and made no allowance for the fact that previous crews aboard Skylab had stowed equipment in an unsystematic manner. The astronauts’ favorite pastimes—watching the sun and earth—were forbidden.

Thus, on 27 December 1973, the Skylab 4 astronauts conducted a daylong “sit-down strike.” Cooper described the crew pejoratively as hostile, irritable, and down-right grumpy, while other writers have described the “strike” as a legitimate reaction to overwork. William K. Douglas, a NASA flight surgeon, lamented both Cooper’s emotionally toned reporting and people’s willingness to focus on others’ real or imagined failures while overlooking greatness. Whatever the “spin” on this particular event, the lessons are clear: the same rapid pace that can be sustained for brief sprints cannot be sustained for marathons. Give astronauts the flexibility to schedule their own activities, and allow time to look out the windows. NASA appears to have taken the lesson to heart. In 2002,’s Todd Halvorson conducted an interview with enthusiastic ISS astronaut Susan Helms. “It’s not that the crew isn’t busy maintaining the station, testing the remote manipulator and conducting science, it’s that there remains enough time to look out the window, do somersaults in weightlessness, watch movies, and sit around chatting.”

Spaceflight also offers opportunities for psychological growth and development. Training for and working in space allows people to develop their abilities, gain a strong sense of accomplishment, and feel worthwhile. There is unparalleled challenge, the opportunity to redefine one’s place in the cosmos. There is the exhilarating feeling, as Harrison Schmitt wrote, of actually “being there.” Walter Cunningham wrote, “It has caused me to seek a challenge wherever I can find one, to charge ahead and never look back . . . that feeling of omnipotence is worth all that it takes to get there.” Many of the two dozen or so astronauts and cosmonauts interviewed by Frank White reported “overview effects,” truly transformative experiences including senses of wonder and awe, unity with nature, transcendence, and universal brotherhood. More recent testimonials concerning the psychological benefits of life in space come from Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell and Shuttle-Mir astronaut-cosmonaut Jerry Linenger. Astronauts and cosmonauts like the sense of adventure, camaraderie, and grandeur in space.

We find hints of long-term physical and mental health benefits to life in challenging environments. For example, a long-term followup study of Navy personnel who had wintered in Antarctica revealed that following their return, they had undergone fewer hospitalizations than their peers who had identical qualifications but whose orders to go to the South Pole were rescinded as the result of an arbitrary administrative decision. Studies of the mental health of cosmonauts conducted two or three years after their return to Earth found that they had become less anxious, hypochondriacal, depressive, and aggressive. The most plausible explanation is that during their stay in tough environments, people develop coping skills, that is, ways of dealing with challenge and stress that continue to serve them well long after they have returned from their expedition.

It was about the time astronauts began traveling on Mir and the ISS that greater evidence of psychology began to show in the U.S. space program. NASA’s Bioastronautics Critical Path Roadmap (BCPR) is one piece of evidence. Bioastronautics was NASA’s shorthand for life in space, and the BCPR was a framework for identifying the knowledge that NASA needs for future space missions. It identified and assigned priorities to the biomedical and behavioral questions that must be addressed (and the kinds of countermeasures that must be designed) for Space Station, lunar, and Mars missions. The BCPR represented a major investment of time and energy, of soliciting and responding to expert advice, and of building consensus. It recognized that NASA’s organizational chart was not isomorphic with the way that research is traditionally organized and tried assiduously to address crucial gaps. The BCPR was a useful mechanism for organizing biomedical and behavioral research and fostered research that yielded operationally relevant results. Most importantly, it represented a higher level of “buy-in” to behavioral research on the part of the space agency. Recently, the BCPR has evolved into the Human Research Program. As of January 2010, six elements compose the Human Research Program. They are the International Space Station Medical Project, Space Radiation, Human Health Countermeasures, Exploration Medical Capability, Behavioral Health and Performance, and Space Human Factors and Habitability. As the mission of NASA changes, the exact delineation of the Human Research Program may also change.

Also coincident with turn-of-the-millennium space station missions was the initiation of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI), a consortium of universities and businesses dedicated to solving the problems of astronauts who are undertaking long-duration missions. The NSBRI is best viewed as tightly networked centers of excellence. Members of affiliated organizations form interdisciplinary teams that cut across organizational boundaries and draw strength from one another. The Institute also provides workshops and retreats for investigators who are working under the NSBRI umbrella.

Many of the research interests represented in the NSBRI are clearly biomedical—for example, bone and muscle loss, immune disorders, and radiation effects. Other teams include neurobehavioral and psychosocial factors and human performance. For instance, there are studies of crew composition, structure, communication, and leadership style. Also, there is research on methods to prevent sleep loss, promote wakefulness, reduce human error, and optimize mental and physical performance during long-duration spaceflight. Whereas many organizations hope to extrapolate studies of Earth-bound populations to astronauts and cosmonauts, NSBRI partners hope that their research on spacefarers and analogs will benefit people on Earth.

In 2003, NASA commissioned a workshop on spaceflight behavioral health. The primary purpose of this workshop was to bring together researchers and practitioners in an effort to identify research gaps and produce an archival record for use by managers, established behavioral health researchers, and newcomers to the field. Also, and perhaps most important since the mid-1990s, astronauts have begun to respond to questionnaires on such topics as noise levels and communication. Astronauts have taken part in flight studies involving sleep and circadian rhythms and have taken self-administered tests of cognitive ability, maintained diaries, and provided other information from orbit. Compared to those of earlier years, many of today’s astronauts are more willing to participate in ground-based and in-flight studies, given proper assurances of confidentiality.

We suggest that the NASA-Mir missions opened a window of opportunity for fruitful reevaluation of the role of behavior, including psychosocial adaptation, in U.S. space missions. When extended-duration missions moved from the abstract and theoretical to the real and some astronauts broached topics like risk, loneliness, and culture conflicts, psychological factors were brought into sharp focus. In policy studies, a window of opportunity opens when a major, unexpected catastrophe (known as a focusing event) becomes known to policy-makers and the public at the same time. Certainly, minor problems on Mir were far removed from catastrophic, but behavioral issues gained salience and became known to NASA officials and the public at the same time. The astronauts’ experiences on Mir opened a window that generated interest in spaceflight behavioral health.

In 1984, Robert Helmreich pointed out that in contrast to Americans, the Russians seemed to have always maintained a certain degree of interest in psycho-social adaptation. He reprinted several quotes from cosmonauts showing interest in psychosocial adjustment, group dynamics, and related topics, and he pointed to the publication of a collection of papers on space psychology by Petrov, Lomov, and Samsonov. Nick Kanas and his associates have written extensively on the role of psychology in the Soviet and then Russian space programs and have highlighted the potential value of this research for NASA. By the mid-1980s, Oleg Gazenko, head of Soviet space medicine, concluded that the limitations of living in space are not medical, but psychological. Quotes from cosmonaut diaries and Soviet/Russian reports remain popular for illustrating the importance of stress, mental health, crew dynamics, and the like, in part because for a long time, neither NASA support personnel nor astronauts themselves freely commented on such issues.

In the early 1970s, there were only three crewed missions, and then America’s “House in Space,” Skylab, was abandoned. The United States invested in the Shuttle, which supports fairly large crews, but for only short times in space. America expected a space station, but it was not approved until 1984, and the station itself underwent several iterations (Space Station, Space Station Alpha, and Space Station Freedom) before becoming the ISS. The Soviets, on the other hand, moved directly into the era of Salyut and Mir space station missions. For them, extended-duration missions—and focusing events in the area of behavioral health—became a reality decades ago. As Connors and her associates wrote in 1986, “The Russians have experienced longer spaceflights than their American counterparts and have given considerable attention to ways of maintaining individuals’ psychological health and high morale in space . . . . In the Soviet Union, the Group for Psychological Support is an acknowledged and welcomed component of the ground team. Concern over such issues as intragroup compatibility and the effects of boredom on productivity seem to be actively studied by cosmonauts and psychologists alike. There appears to be little if any loss of status associated with confirmation of psychological or social problems associated with confinement in space.”

Thus, Russians had to confront in the 1970s issues that became pressing for Americans two decades later. As a result, when looking for models for a psychological support program, NASA turned to the Russian program to support cosmonauts on Mir. It is interesting that America’s international partners in space—European as well as Japanese—share the Russians’ interest in spaceflight psychology.


NASA, chartered as a civilian space agency, initially intended to select Mercury astronauts from a relatively broad range of explorers: military and commercial aviators; mountain climbers; polar explorers; bathysphere operators; and other fit, intelligent, highly motivated individuals who had demonstrated capabilities for venturing into dangerous new areas. Strong pressure from the White House limited the pool to military test pilots. This was a group of accomplished fliers, many of whom had braved death during war. They brought with them the sharp wits, relentless motivation, and strong emotional control that characterize pilots who are willing to push themselves and their aircraft to (and sometimes beyond) the limits. Furthermore, because they were under military command, they were used to taking orders and were already cleared for top-secret technology. Mercury candidates had to be under 40 years of age, have graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in science or engineering, have logged at least 1,500 hours flying jet planes, and have graduated from test pilot school. Of course, they were expected to be free of disease or illness and to demonstrate resistance to the physical stressors of spaceflight, such as temperature extremes and rapid acceleration and deceleration. To fit in the cramped confines of the Mercury capsule, their height could not exceed 5 feet 9 inches. The first astronauts had five duties: survive, perform effectively, add reliability to the automated system, complement instrument and satellite observation with scientific human observation, and improve the flight system through human engineering capabilities.

The initial Mercury project used two psychological approaches to selection. One was the industrial-organizational model of select-in characteristics emphasizing astronaut proficiencies needed to successfully complete mission tasks. The second was the psychiatric-clinical psychology model of select-out characteristics. As Robert Voas and Raymond Zedekar point out, psychological qualifications fell into two categories: abilities and personality. In terms of aptitude and ability, they include high intelligence, general scientific knowledge and research skills, a good understanding of engineering, knowledge of operational procedures for aircraft and missiles, and psychomotor skills such as those used to operate aircraft. As regards personality, astronauts were to demonstrate a strong motivation to participate in the program, high tolerance for stress, good decision-making skills, emotional maturity, and the ability to work with others.

At that time, of 508 military test pilots, 110 met the general requirements and 69 were considered highly qualified. These were invited to the Pentagon for a briefing and interviews. Then, 32 were sent to the Lovelace clinic for an extraordinary physical exam and, after certification at Lovelace, to Wright Air Development Center in Dayton, Ohio, for tests of performance under stress. Here, the candidates were subjected to vibration, acceleration and deceleration, sitting with their feet in tubs of ice water, and numerous psychological and psychiatric evaluations. They completed 13 tests on personality and motivation, and another dozen or so on intelligence and aptitudes. NASA historians offer the following observation:

Two of the more interesting personality and motivation studies seemed like parlor games at first, until it became evident how profound an exercise in Socratic introspection was implied by conscientious answers to the test questions “Who am I” and “Whom would you assign to the mission if you could not go yourself?” . . . . Candidates who proceeded this far in the selection process all agreed with the one who complained “Nothing is sacred any more.”

After five Mercury flights, NASA officials decided that, given the absence of serious performance deficits to date, there was no need to continue exhaustive testing procedures. Although ongoing research would have provided an excellent basis for refining selection methods, by the end of 1962, NASA had prohibited research teams from collecting data on astronaut job performance, thus making it impossible to validate selection methods. At that point, according to Patricia Santy’s authoritative work, Choosing the Right Stuff: The Psychological Assessment of Astronauts and Cosmonauts, normal reluctance to participate in psychological research was transformed into “outright hostility.” Psychiatric and psychological data from the Mercury program were confiscated, and researchers were told that apart from incomplete information that had already appeared in an obscure interim report, nothing could be published about astronaut psychology. The reasons for this are not entirely clear—for example, confidentiality was a growing concern, and data that could provide a basis for invidious comparisons could work against crew morale—but Santy favors the view that “NASA became fearful that information on the psychological status and performance of their astronauts would be detrimental to the agency.”

She also documents the minimal role that psychiatrists and psychologists played in the selection process from Gemini until well into the early Shuttle missions. In the beginning of the astronaut program, original psychological selection attempted to pick the best-qualified candidates from a very capable group of experienced pilots, but by the 1980s, the selection process simply made sure that candidates were qualified based on the evaluator’s opinion. Thus in 1983, Jones and Annes could claim that no psychological testing was involved. Rather, the approach had evolved into an entirely psychiatric process completed by two psychiatrists who separately interviewed each candidate. Whereas the original examination sought the best-qualified candidates, later procedures simply ensured that each candidate met the minimum qualifications.

Candidates were no longer rated against one another, but they were screened for various psychopathologic conditions that could be detrimental or unsafe in a space environment. This screening, although conducted by expert aviation psychiatrists, did not have specific and objective criteria by which to rate each candidate. The emphasis was on selecting-out those candidates whose psychological structure would be detrimental in a space environment. Neuroses, personality disorders, fear of flying, disabling phobias, substance abuse, the use of psychotropic medications, or any other psychiatric conditions that would be hazardous to flight safety or mission accomplishment were among the grounds for rejection.

Thus, a selection program that began in 1959 as a model rooted in psychiatry and clinical psychology, and in industrial and organizational psychology, had been reduced to subjective evaluation. Patricia Santy provides more detail on how psychiatric evaluations were conducted by two psychiatric consultants who did not collaborate, use a standardized psychiatric interview, or keep detailed documentation, and who used their own subjective sets of psychological criteria in the course of the evaluation. She reviewed the percentage of female and male candidates disqualified psychiatrically. She found that one of the two psychiatrists hired to help in the screening process between 1977 and 1985 psychiatrically disqualified 40.7 percent of the female candidates and 7.5 percent of the male candidates. However, since no specific documentation existed, there was no way to know the reasoning behind his decisions. This is not to say that the psychiatric consultants did a poor job of selecting-out; because no validation studies were completed, there is no evidence by which to evaluate their work.

Under the leadership of psychiatrist Patricia Santy and psychologist Al Holland in the 1980s, and then, in the 1990s, psychiatrist Christopher Flynn, there was a gradual return to evidence- and normative-based astronaut selection. In 1988, a biobehavioral research laboratory was formed within the Space Biomedical Research Institute (SBRI), which at that time was a branch of NASA’s Medical Sciences Division, along with Medical Operations. Michael Bungo headed SBRI; Patricia Santy was the director of the laboratory; and psychologist Al Holland became her deputy. The Biobehavioral Laboratory was to develop a new working group of psychologists and psychiatrists to make recommendations on both the operational and research needs in the areas of the behavioral sciences. At that time, operations were expanding beyond helping to choose astronauts to providing psychological support for the astronaut corps.

The development of standardized, semistructured interviews and diagnostic criteria, aided by the work done by the Working Group on Psychiatric and Psychological Selection of Astronauts, resulted in a rewrite of NASA psychiatric standards based on the then-current American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual III and recommendations for a select-in process. The reasoning behind the select-in process harkened back to the original logic of 1959, hypothesizing that certain psychological traits were associated with effective astronaut performance. Commencing in 1989, validation work on the select-in criteria was begun. In describing the selection process, Laura Galarza and Al Holland note that selection starts at the time of entry into the astronaut corps, then should continue through the training process and include selection for designated missions.

In the 1990s, Galarza and Holland began developing a scientifically defensible select-in process that would screen for personal abilities to help people live and work within small teams under conditions of isolation and confinement. By using highly qualified subject-matter experts, job analysis, and documented validation techniques, they sought to meet the high standards for selection established by the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychologists (SIOP). Although these researchers developed a profile of needed knowledge, skills, and abilities, NASA’s prohibition against obtaining in-training or on-the-job performance ratings effectively killed any longitudinal or predictive validation of the proposed astronaut selection procedures. Today, all astronaut candidate applicants spend several hours completing psychological tests and then undergo extensive psychological and psychiatric interviews. To prevent coaching, the specific tests and interview content are not publicly available. The current selection process resembles the selection procedures for other high-risk jobs and incorporates highly validated tests that are quantitatively scored, along with in-depth, semistructured interviews.

Well before Apollo astronauts set foot on the Moon, there were political pressures to increase the diversity of the astronaut corps by including women and representatives of different racial and ethnic groups. Accommodating people with different cultural backgrounds became a practical matter in the Apollo-Soyuz rendezvous, in the course of the Russian “guest cosmonaut” program, in Shuttle missions with international crews, and, of course, aboard the ISS. Successfully managing cultural, occupational, and other differences in space is likely to become even more crucial as highly trained professionals are joined by industrial workers and tourists.

Margaret Weitekamp recounts how, at the inception of Project Mercury, an Air Force flight surgeon, Don Flickenger, helped initiate a program known as WISE—Women in Space Earliest. Women offered certain potential advantages over men; one of the most notable of these was their smaller size (and reduced life-support requirements), which would make them easier to lift into orbit and keep alive at a time when engineers had to fret every extra pound of weight. After word of the program’s existence leaked, it was abandoned by the Air Force and taken over by Dr. Randall Lovelace, of the same Lovelace Clinic that conducted the physicals for project Mercury. Aviatrix Jackie Cochran and her wealthy philanthropist husband, Floyd Odlum, provided funding so that Lovelace could put the women through the same rigorous evaluation. Of the 25 women who took the physical, 13 passed. The next step in the process, which involved centrifuges and jet flights, depended on the availability of military facilities and equipment. Although it appeared that the procedures could be done at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, the ability to do so depended on NASA’s officially “requiring” and then reimbursing the testing. Since the program was unofficial (despite widespread perceptions that it was connected with NASA), the space agency did not intervene on the women’s behalf. Some of the women continued to press for further testing and flight training, and, eventually, there was a congressional hearing, but public clamor and aggressive lobbying got no results. Kennedy’s decision to place a man on the Moon before the decade was finished was interpreted by NASA to mean that it could not divert resources to sending women to orbit. But there were other barriers to women’s participation in space exploration, including the inability of some of the people in NASA’s white-male-dominated culture to conceive of women in the “masculine” role of astronaut. Weitekamp writes:

At a very basic level, it never occurred to American decision makers to seriously consider a woman astronaut. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, NASA officials and other American space policy makers remained unconscious of the way their calculations implicitly incorporated postwar beliefs about men’s and women’s roles. Within the civilian space agency, the macho ethos of test piloting and military aviation remained intact. The tacit acceptance that military jet test pilots sometimes drank too much (and often drove too fast) complemented the expectation that women wore gloves and high heels—and did not fly spaceships.

At that time, lack of diversity at NASA was not limited to the astronaut corps. In 1974, Congress held a hearing on NASA’s Equal Employment Opportunity Program. The chairman’s introductory remarks included the statement “It is clear that the NASA equal employment opportunity effort over the years has been inadequate . . . .” In the congressional report, NASA admitted that as of the end of fiscal year (FY) 1971, of all NASA employees, only 16.6 percent were women and 4.6 percent minorities. Only 3 percent of the supervisors and 2.4 percent of the engineers were women.

Kim McQuaid points out that many forces worked against increasing the proportion of women and blacks at NASA. Nationally, efforts to increase diversity through new employment strategies began at about the same time as NASA flourished in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Special hurdles at NASA included an organizational culture that was built on the white-male stereotypes of the time and demanded prior training and experience in science and engineering at a time when very few women or minorities were earning (or were allowed to earn) degrees in science and engineering. In 1973, then–NASA Administrator James Fletcher hired Ruth Bates Harris as a high-level deputy director to oversee NASA’s equal opportunity employment processes—but, when it turned out that she would be a fearless leader rather than a compliant bureaucrat, he fired her and then, under pressure, attempted to rehire her at a lower level. This initiated bad press, conflicts with Congress, and a series of internal struggles that brought about diversification. In the 1990s, Administrator Dan Goldin could complain that NASA was still too male, pale, and stale, although, two decades earlier, NASA had responded to new domestic political issues by changing from a civil rights sham to the beginnings of a demonstrably effective, if imperfect, affirmative action program.

Aside from the 1965 selection cycle, when the National Academy of Sciences handled selection and allowed women to apply (none were accepted), it was not until the Shuttle era that women were added to the astronaut corps. On 16 January 1978, the first female and black candidates were selected; only a few years later, in 1983, the public wildly acclaimed mission specialist Sally Ride’s orbital flight aboard Challenger. Some of the women who had participated in the informal women’s astronaut selection program of the early 1960s felt vindicated in 1995, when they watched pilot Eileen Collins lift off, carrying their dreams with her. Today, female astronauts routinely participate in Shuttle and Space Station missions in many different roles. Despite the long road that American women and minorities traveled to prove their worth, the U.S. experience has shown that talented women and minorities, given no special treatment because of gender or ethnicity, are as adept as their white, male colleagues in the world of space.


Initially, psychological support for astronauts came from helpful flight surgeons, flak-catchers who tried to minimize interference on the part of the media and the public, as well as cheering family and friends. By means of shortwave radio, astronauts on the ground encouraged astronauts in orbit. It is clear from Wolfe’s The Right Stuff that the astronauts’ wives provided strong support for one another, as well as for their husbands. The larger community of astronauts and their families still provides psychological support for astronauts before, during, and after their flights.

Professional psychological support for the astronauts and their families evolved over time and gained momentum in the early space station era. Today, psychological support is provided in three stages: preflight, in-flight, and postflight.

The NASA and Wyle Operational Psychology team, under the leadership of the Behavioral Health and Performance Group/Space Medicine, NASA, offers pre-flight training and briefings in such diverse areas as self-care, conflict management and cultural awareness, and field training. Family readiness is addressed in a briefing focused on the astronaut’s spouse to explain processes such as crew care packages and private family conferences. Crew care packages are containers of personal items from family and friends that are sent via Russian Soyuz supply missions and U.S. Space Shuttle missions to astronauts residing on the ISS. Favorite foods, surprise gifts from the family, and holiday decorations are a few of the items that have been sent to the ISS in these shipments.

During the flight stage, in addition to the crew care packages and private weekly videoconferences with families, psychological support services include extensive communication with people on the ground (including Mission Control personnel, relatives, and friends), psychological support hardware and software, special events such as surprise calls from celebrities, and semimonthly videos with a behavioral health clinician. Astronauts in flight have e-mail accessibility and can use an Internet protocol phone on board the ISS to call back to Earth. As in the past, ham radio allows contact between the ISS and schools throughout the world.

A month before their return to Earth, ISS astronauts are briefed on the stresses and joys of returning home following the deployment. Postflight, there are a series of debriefings intended to benefit the astronaut and fine-tune the psychological support program. The astronaut’s spouse is given the opportunity to meet with operational psychological support personnel to provide the latter with feedback on the psychological support provided during the mission. Of course, astronauts and their families can use counseling psychological support services at any time. While this briefly covers the current state of the art of psychological support for astronauts on the ISS, psychological support for lunar and Mars missions may have greater constraints and force a return to the mindset of earlier explorers and their families.


Spaceflight is both demanding and rewarding, and for many years, psychologists focused on the demanding environment and stressful effects. Throughout the history of spaceflight, psychologists, psychiatrists, and many other professionals have expressed concern that the physical, psychological, and interpersonal stressors of spaceflight could endanger a crew, undercut performance, and lower the quality of life. Episodes in spaceflight-analogous environments and a few incidents in space suggest that although no astronauts have been recalled to Earth on the basis of psychological and social challenges, adaptation must be taken into account. Astronaut participation in extended-duration missions, the prospects of a return to the Moon, continuing public enthusiasm for a mission to Mars, the reformulation of research questions following the publication of Safe Passage, and the coevolution of NASA’s Bioastronautics Critical Path Roadmap and the National Space Biomedical Research Institute initiated a new era for psychology. According to our analysis, since the dawn of the modern space station era, there has been an increase in both research and operational interest in spaceflight behavioral health. Slowly, and perhaps painfully, psychology has gained greater recognition within the U.S. space program, and there is a growing convergence of interests to target research at operational problems.

Current NASA administration has mandated that human research be operationally relevant. This is partly driven by funding shortages and partly by needs to meet NASA performance standards and requirements when astronauts once again venture beyond low-Earth orbit. The new Human Research Program documents including the “Human Research Program Requirements Document” and the “Human Research Program Integrated Research Plan” are the bases for defining, documenting, and allocating human research program requirements as they have evolved from the older Bioastronautics Critical Path Roadmap and new NASA standards and requirements that emphasize future missions. As explained on the NASA Web site, “The Human Research Program (HRP) delivers human health and performance countermeasures, knowledge, technologies, and tools to enable safe, reliable, and productive human space exploration. This Integrated Research Plan (IRP) describes the program’s research activities that are intended to address the needs of human space exploration and serve IRP customers. The timescale of human space exploration is envisioned to take many decades. The IRP illustrates the program’s research plan through the timescale of early lunar missions of extended duration.”

We can see the preliminary outlines of a comprehensive and continuing program in spaceflight behavioral health. A comprehensive program in spaceflight behavioral health will have to be broad-based; be interdisciplinary; and address issues at the individual, small-group, and organizational levels. It will require multiple, convergent methods including archival research, field observations, and both field and laboratory experiments. Research falling under this umbrella must meet high scientific standards, achieve flight certification, and be palatable to astronauts. Only with continued interest and support from NASA—and from psychologists—will spaceflight behavioral health flourish. Long-term success will require accessible, peer-reviewed publications and efforts to target young investigators to replace those who retire. An ongoing behavioral database could prove very useful. For over 15 years, David Musson, Robert Helmreich, and their associates have been developing a database that includes astronauts as well as professionals who work in other demanding environments. As they point out, this kind of database provides many opportunities for studies in such areas as the effectiveness of recruiting and selection procedures, performance changes over time, and attrition.

Psychology is in a better position to be of help. Many of the theories and tools that are proving useful today were not available at the dawn of the Space Age. New (relative to 1960) resources include cognitive models, which emphasize our information processing power, and humanistic or “positive psychology” models that stress people’s positive, striving nature. These new models have allowed psychologists a fresh take on many important issues. Human factors psychologists benefit from modern computer modeling technologies and increasing evidence of the importance of taking the person into account when developing a human or human-robotic system.

Research technology has changed dramatically over the past 50 years, and the new technology has also been useful for increasing psychology’s contributions to NASA. These changes are evident wherever we look, from questionnaire construction to data analysis. Today, miniaturization and computer technology enable psychological assessments and evidence-based countermeasures that would have been impossible in the 1960s.

Minimally intrusive techniques are particularly useful, and one of these is based on nonintrusive computer monitoring of facial expression. Another approach is monitoring cognitive functioning through computer analysis of speech. Encouraging astronauts to monitor their own behavior reduces the threat that performance lapses could lead to flight disqualification. This self-monitoring has been accomplished by means of computers and personal digital assistants (PDAs) that are programmed to measure several dimensions of cognitive functioning (attention, information processing, and recall). Astronauts may use the results of these tests to gauge their own preparedness to engage in a particular activity.

While we see evidence of an expanding role, our profession’s future in space-flight is by no means assured. NASA’s resistance to psychology is by no means fully overcome. NASA Administrators must still concern themselves with public relations. Project managers and engineers must still get on with their tasks within the real constraints of cost and practicality. Astronauts remain sensitive to possible threats to flight assignments and careers. The focusing events of Mir and the ISS were less than two decades ago, and it is too early to tell if the new interest and infrastructure can withstand the vagaries of funding variations or national and organizational politics.


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