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NASA Will Launch Psychological Study of Space on Next Mir Mission

Health: Astronaut, two cosmonauts will spend four months together. Possible effects include anxiety, depression and strained relations.

September 15, 1996|MARCIA DUNN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — John Blaha, as cool and tough as astronauts come, was eating lunch with his wife, Brenda, when he got the awful news.

NASA was on the phone; his Russian crew mates had just been yanked from their impending spaceflight for medical reasons, and he'd be spending four months in orbit with two other cosmonauts.

Four months on a Russian space station with two men with whom he'd hardly trained! After working so long and so well with the two who were pulled!

"Brenda said she saw an expression on my face, in my mouth, that she hadn't seen before. So she knew something very bad had just happened," Blaha recalled two weeks later, the call still painfully fresh in his mind.

They hate to admit it, but U.S. psychologists are intrigued, even pleased, with the last-minute switch. It will make their analysis of Blaha and company--the first formal interpersonal study ever of a space crew and flight controllers--more interesting.

After 35 years of launching humans into space, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration finally is getting serious about the psychological hazards of spaceflight. And what better case study than this?

This is actually the third Russian crew for Blaha, who will replace NASA astronaut Shannon Lucid aboard the Russian space station Mir as soon as space shuttle Atlantis blasts off and docks. Launch is scheduled for Monday.

After training extensively in Russia with two cosmonauts, Blaha was reassigned earlier this year to another crew because of a change in NASA's lineup.

Then his Russian commander failed a routine electrocardiogram test one week before his scheduled flight last month, and the backup crew of Valery Korzun and Alexander Kaleri had to step in. They were launched from Kazakhstan to Mir on Aug. 17.

"I keep saying I think it will work because we all want it to work," says Blaha, 54, a retired Air Force colonel and an astronaut for 16 years.

It's not easy making it work on long space trips, even under the best of circumstances. Motivation, no matter how high, tends to wane after about a month, whether you're stuck in a small group on Earth or in space, says Dr. Patricia Santy, a former NASA medical officer and author of the 1994 book, "Choosing the Right Stuff: The Psychological Selection of Astronauts and Cosmonauts."

Space shuttle flights last two weeks at most, and NASA therefore has focused its attention over the years on physiological rather than psychological problems facing its astronauts. But the Russians--masters at long-duration spaceflight--have had to cope with space fatigue.

Ten days into his 211-day spaceflight, Soviet cosmonaut Valentin Lebedev already was in a bad mood aboard the Salyut 7 space station and wondering if he'd last. He made it through the 1982 mission after suffering through anxiety, insomnia, depression and strained relations with his crew mate and ground controllers.

Because of petty disagreements, Dr. Valery Polyakov stopped talking to one of his Russian crew mates during his record-long 438-day Mir mission in 1994 and 1995. The two eventually patched things up.

Many Russian cosmonauts become irritable, depressed and homesick halfway through their long station stints and sometimes withdraw from their crew mates, says Dr. Nick Kanas, professor of psychiatry at UC San Francisco.

The Russian Space Agency tries to fight this by sending surprise packages on supply ships and arranging unexpected calls from family members and even celebrities.

It is rumored that some crew problems have cut Russian missions short, but, again, it's all anecdotal. It is clear that cosmonauts seldom become fast friends afterward: "Most of us don't even want to go through post-flight rehabilitation in the same city," a cosmonaut once told Santy.

So Kanas has asked Blaha and his two Russian crew mates, as well as flight controllers at Russia's Mission Control outside Moscow, to describe their moods and behavior toward one another in weekly questionnaires.

It may be that NASA needs a different breed of astronaut for long, mundane missions--feelers rather than doers, as Santy puts it, researchers rather than high-performance test pilots.

JoAnna Wood, supervisor of the psychology and behavior laboratory at Johnson Space Center in Houston, has spent the last few years studying Antarctic teams for NASA and has found increased tensions to be the No. 1 problem.

Emotional maturity, flexibility, sense of humor--these are the traits that Wood would want in an astronaut living on a space station or bound for Mars.

Al Holland, chief of psychology at the Johnson Space Center, has been pushing for astronauts who are even better team players than their predecessors and who have better social skills. He also insists that candidates for long-duration space travel be well aware of the psychological pitfalls experienced by people in the Antarctic and other isolated situations, and that they learn relaxation techniques.

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