Exploring inner space on Mir Psychiatrists are tracking the emotional well-being of the space station's oft-challenged crew members.

June 14, 1998|By Rachel Elson | Rachel Elson,special to the sun

SAN FRANCISCO - It has sounded, at times, like the ultimate adventure trip gone haywire. Or maybe a deadly, space-age spinoff of "Gilligan's Island": Soar into the ether! See the world from 250 miles above the Earth! Brush up on your Russian as you battle fires, midair collisions, power failures and the deep, dark abyss of space itself!

Over the last year and a half of joint U.S.-Russian missions on Mir - which ended last week when the shuttle picked up astronaut Andrew Thomas - the weary space station has become widely regarded as having the performance, safety and engineering of, well, a Ford Pinto.

Starting with an on-board fire in February 1997, the ship and its various crews have endured a series of crises - an oxygen system breakdown, cooling system leaks, a crash into a cargo ship and the failure of the main computer system - that had NASA management considering whether to scuttle the entire effort.

Through all the calamities, some earthly eyes have kept a keen watch on the astro- and cosmonauts, trying to gauge their reactions to each moment of crisis. In a somewhat ironic first for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, San Francisco psychiatry researcher Dr. Nick Kanas has been tracking the stress, cohesion and emotional health of everyone working with the troubled Mir.

Once a week for 20 minutes, the orbiting Russians and Americans and their ground crews sat down to get in touch with their feelings and report back to Kanas. Did they feel tense or lively, crabby or calm? How well was the group getting along, both personally and professionally? Were they supportive, flexible, efficient?

And, by the way, Kanas' questionnaires asked, what has been happening lately to affect their feelings? Visitors? Fire? Crashes? Routine tests? Sheer boredom?

In a tiny lab at San Francisco's Veterans Administration Medical Center, Kanas and his staff input the answers and watch the stars. Analysis of the data won't come until September, when the first three years of the study are over, and Kanas and his Russian co-investigators can shuffle each crew's data to protect their anonymity.

For NASA, the project marks the first attempt to include behavioral research among the studies of human reaction to space travel. During the short trips that marked early space exploration, says Marc Shepanek, NASA's Washington-based project manager for behavior and performance, astronauts with "the right stuff" could cope with stress by simply bottling it up.

Today, though, space travel means longer missions and more distant horizons. "Let's say it takes six months to travel to Mars and spend some time on the surface," Shepanek says. "That's a long time - and most people can't just 'be tough.' "

In the next year or so, NASA will begin launching components of an international space station to be permanently staffed with a multinational crew from Russia, Japan, the United States and several European countries. NASA wants to make sure those crews are prepared for the mental and emotional rigors of long-term confinement. Since high stress among the crew could prove fatal in a crisis, Shepanek says, the agency hopes to learn how to screen and train prospective astronauts based on issues like coping mechanisms and cultural sensitivity.

"Some people, in times of stress, just shut down," he says. "Some people react intellectually." Someone who freezes up at times of stress - say when an on-board pressure leak requires immediately donning a space suit - endangers not only himself but the whole mission, Shepanek explains. "You have to be aware of any destructive patterns," he says.

Back in San Francisco, Kanas is already preparing another study for the international space station, asking the voyagers preliminary questions on variables such as linguistic abilities, cross-cultural friendships and tastes for foreign foods. What he's hoping to discover is whether greater cultural sensitivity will improve cohesion for crews on the international station.

"We think that the more sophisticated an international crew is, the better they'll be able to get along with each other."

Kanas has a lifelong interest in space travel. Long before NASA issued its call for behavioral research projects, the University of California at San Francisco psychiatry professor had spent time as a visiting professor in Russia, and also had worked with the European Space Agency.

Still, when he proposed the study of the Mir crew's interactions, he had no idea how much material he would have to work with. The 12-year-old station, originally planned for a five-year mission, has seemed at times an orbiting deathtrap; its crews have had much more to cope with than mere territorial squabbles and malfunctions.

"We had thought most missions would be fairly routine," says Kanas. "The equipment breaks down and ... for a couple of days you have to scramble to get things on line again. ... I don't think we would have predicted the string of accidents."

But until the data he's gathered is analyzed, Kanas says, he's not sure whether Mir's erratic adventures have actually increased or decreased the crews' stress and cohesion.

On the one hand, some of the astronauts had enough near-death experiences to qualify for jobs at the Psychic Friends Network; three of the seven U.S. astronauts who have done a stint on Mir have left NASA.

However, Kanas points out, both the Russian and American astronauts have trained for years to handle critical situations. Maybe, he suggests, it's really the sheer monotony of day-to-day routines that stresses them most.

"If I was up there, I'd be pretty nervous," Kanas said. "But I'm not a test pilot."

Pub Date: 6/14/98

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