The Effects of Isolation on Astronauts and What We Can Learn from NASA

With the sci-fi thriller “The Martian” hitting theaters on Oct. 2, it’s not surprising to learn that NASA has studied the how its astronauts will deal with unprecedented periods of confinement and isolation.

Though the story of astronaut Mark Watney is fictional, the possibility of being marooned without the ability to be rescued is very real. The space agency asked psychologists to develop methods to predict and deal with behavioral problems that could arise on a mission where it’s impractical to call in a psychologist for therapy.

The Effects Of Isolation  

While astronauts have conducted missions of up to 14 months with no serious psychological consequences, those who end up on Mars will have to endure much greater periods of isolation from their friends and loved ones.   

The results of two studies on the social and psychological effects of isolation on astronauts and cosmonauts serving on the Mir and International Space Stations and their mission control counterparts showed that mood and cohesion levels were affected by the mission leaders. The studies also found evidence that negative emotions were directed at perceived outsiders – particularly by the isolated crew members toward their mission control colleagues. Another common problem was related to isolation – one astronaut became depressed due to the isolation from his wife and family. 

What We Can Learn

Based on their findings, researches recommended NASA coordinate training of the flight crew, mission control and NASA management so that they see themselves as a cohesive unit. They also began development on a program to deal with depression or conflicts between crew members – two of the most likely problems to arise in extended space travel. The results of the NASA studies are instructive as the astronauts will experience fatigue, anxiety, boredom and emotional instability. 

One study from Brigham Young University found that the effects of loneliness on physical health are comparable to smoking, and that it is twice as deadly as obesity. Numerous resources are available if you feel isolated. Book clubs, involvement in community action, church membership, participation in locally organized outings and adult education classes, for example, are all fun and creative ways the lonely person can alleviate the pain of solitude and cultivate a physically and psychologically healthier life.