In space, behavioural psychology and mental health are matters of life and death

As the UAE pushes ahead with its ambitious space programme, psychologists can make a significant contribution, writes Justin Thomas
Picture from the Soviet daily Pravda dated 13 November 1957 of the dog Laika, the first living creature ever sent in space, onboard Sputnik II. Soviet spacecraft Sputnik 2 was launched from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, 03 November 1957. Laika died a few hours after launch from stress and overheating, likely due to a malfunction in the thermal control system. / AFP PHOTO / TASS / -

The race to be the UAE's first astronaut is down to the last few. The Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) announced last week that nine candidates have qualified for the final phase of the hunt to find the first Emirati to be sent into space.

This will mark a significant milestone on the UAE’s ambitious space programme which includes sending an unmanned probe to Mars, due to arrive in 2021, marking the nation's 50th anniversary. Future extraterrestrial aspirations involve sending a manned mission to Mars and perhaps, one day, even establishing a colony on the red planet.

The science involved in achieving these goals is vast and necessarily multidisciplinary. This includes psychology. The science of mind and behaviour has a crucial role to play in manned space missions, particularly those heading for distant destinations such as Mars.

Understanding human psychological adaptation to outer space has a long and illustrious history. The cognitive and behavioural sciences have been involved in space exploration since day one. Early behavioural studies involved sending animals into space to assess the psycho-physiological impact of leaving the Earth’s atmosphere.

In 1958, Russia sent a dog called Laika into space. The canine survived for several days although, unfortunately, Laika could not be brought back to Earth.

Next up were the primates, and in 1958 and 1959 the US launched and subsequently retrieved two squirrel monkeys named Able and Baker. One of the primary objectives of these animal missions was to assess the cognitive and behavioural impacts of going into space.

In other words, could the animals still do what they had been trained to do during the ordeal of space flight.

As space programs advanced, psychologists got involved in exploring the psychological impact of space missions on humans too. They also contributed actively to the astronaut selection and training processes. In addition, psychologists specialising in human factors and ergonomic design made significant contributions to astronaut safety, by studying and minimising the likelihood of catastrophic human error.


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Although these contributions are broad, numerous and significant, psychologists could be doing still more to advance our space exploration aspirations.

In the book Psychology of Space Exploration, psychology professor Albert Harrison, and Nasa researcher Edna Fiedler, suggest that the relatively slow realisation of psychology's valuable contribution to space exploration might relate to Nasa's managers and engineers being "thing people" rather than "people people".

With extended duration space exploration and potential manned missions to Mars on the horizon, human factors and behavioural health have become more critical than ever. Psychological research examining the impact of extended periods of isolation and confinement can help us better prepare for these extended missions. Similarly, exploring the challenges faced by people who are reunited with their families after years of separation can be equally insightful and useful.

As the duration of space missions gets longer, it becomes increasingly important to examine the dynamics of interpersonal conflicts in space. With new norms of greater gender equality and international co-operation thankfully emerging, there are also issues of culture, gender composition and group cohesion to examine.

Ensuring the behavioural health and well-being of employees is always essential. However, when those employees are working 24 hours per day in an environment where machine malfunction or human error could be fatal, in an environment at least 300 days journey from their families and support networks, then promoting behavioural health and wellbeing takes on new dimensions of importance.

If you were on a 3-year space mission with six colleagues, dealing with the usual ups and downs of human interaction at close quarters, what would help you to feel good? If colleague B was irritating and colleague C was undermining, how might you best deal with this? These are not frivolous or irrelevant questions. When wellbeing is compromised, bad things are more likely to happen.

Psychology has made, and can make, many more significant contributions to our space programmes. These contributions will be realised sooner rather than later if the “thing people” sit down more frequently with the “people people”.

Dr Justin Thomas is professor of psychology at Zayed University

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Justin Thomas

Justin Thomas

Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University and a columnist for The National