Can We Get Space Madness?

Published: 25 Oct , 2016
by

If you’ve watched any Ren and Stimpy cartoons, you know that one of the greatest hazards of spaceflight is “space madness”. Only exposure to the isolation and all pervasive radiation of deep space could drive an animated chihuahua into such a state of lunacy.

What will happen if they press the history eraser button? Maybe something good? Maybe something bad? I guess, we’ll never know.

Of course, Ren and Stimpy weren’t the first fictionalized account of people losing their marbles when they fly into the inky darkness of space. There were the Reavers from Firefly, that crazy Russian cosmonaut in Armageddon, almost everyone in the movie Sunshine, and it was the problem in every second episode of Star Trek.

The Icarus Pathfinder starship passing by Neptune. Credit: Adrian Mann

The Icarus Pathfinder starship passing by Neptune. Credit: Adrian Mann

According to movies and television, if you’ve got space madness, you and your crewmates are in for a rough ride. If you’re lucky, you merely hallucinate those familiar space sirens, begging you to take off your space helmet and join them for eternity on that asteroid over there.

But you’re just as likely to go homicidal, turning on your crewmates, killing them one by one as a dark sacrifice to the black hole that powers your ship’s stardrive.  And whatever you do, don’t stare too long at that pulsar, with its hypnotic, rhythmic pulse. The isolation, the alien psycho-waves, dark whisperings from eldritch gods speak to you though the paper-thin membrane of sanity. If we go to space, does only madness await us?

If you’ve spent any time around human beings, you know that we’ve got our share of mental disease right here on Earth. You don’t have to travel to space to suffer depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders.

Once we’re in orbit, or prancing about on the surface, of Mars, we’re going to experience our share of human physical and mental frailties. We’re going to take our basic humanity to space, including our brains.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 18% of the US population, or 40 million Americans suffer from some variety of anxiety-related disorder. 6.7% of adults had a major, crippling depressive episode over the course of a year.

Unless we improve treatment outcomes for mental disorders here on Earth, we can expect to see similar outcomes in space. Especially once we make exploration a little safer, and we’re not concerned with our immediate exposure to the vacuum of space. But will going to space make things worse?

Outside view of the Mir space station. Credit: NASA

Outside view of the Mir space station. Credit: NASA

NASA has carried out two studies on astronaut psychological health studies. One for the cosmonauts and astronauts on the Mir space station, and a second study for the folks on the International Space Station. They tested both the folks in space as well as their ground support staff once a week, to see how they were doing.

Although they reported some tension, there was no loss in mood or group cohesion during the mission. The crews had better cohesion when they had an effective leader on board.

Isolation working in close quarters has been heavily studied here on Earth, with submarine crews and isolated groups at research bases in Antarctica.

United States members of the second HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) crew celebrate Independence Day during their simulated 120-day Mars mission. Credit: Casey Stedman/Instagram

A previous HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. This one was only for 120 days. Credit: Casey Stedman/Instagram

Earlier this year, a crew of simulated Mars astronauts emerged, unharmed from a year-long isolation experiment in Hawaii. The six international crewmembers were part of the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation experiment, to see what would happen to potential Mars explorers, stuff on the surface of the red planet for a year.

They couldn’t leave their 110 square-meter (1,200 square-foot) habitat without a spacesuit on. What did they report? Mostly boredom. Some interpersonal issues. Now that they’re out, some are good friends, and others probably won’t stay in contact, or pay too much attention to them in their Facebook feed.

The bottom line is that it doesn’t seem like there’s too much of a risk from the isolation and close quarters. Well, nothing that we’re not used to dealing with as human beings.

But there is another problem that has revealed itself, and might be much more severe: space dementia. And we’re not talking about the song from Muse.

According to researchers from the University of California, Irvine, long term exposure to the radiation of deep space will cause significant damage to our fragile human brains. Or at least, that’s what happened to a group of rats bathed in radiation at the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory at New York’s Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Over time, the damage to their brains would cause astronauts to experience a type of dementia that causes anxiety. Brain cancer patients who receive radiation treatment are prone to this as well.

Artist's concept of a habitat for a Mars colony. Credit: NASA

Artist’s concept of a habitat for a Mars colony. Credit: NASA

During the months and years of a Mars mission, astronauts would take a large dose of radiation, even with shielding, and the effects would be harmful to their bodies and to their brains. In fact, even when the astronauts return to Earth, their condition might worsen, with more anxiety, depression, memory problems, and a loss of decision making ability. This is a serious problem that needs to be solved if humans are going to live for a long time outside the Earth’s protective magnetosphere.

It turns out, science fiction space madness isn’t a real thing, it’s a plot device like warp drives, teleporters, and light sabers.

Isolation and close proximity isn’t much of a problem, we’ve dealt with it before, and we can still work with people, even though we hate them and the way they slurp their coffee, and lean back on their chair, even though that thing is totally going to break and they’re going to hurt themselves. And they won’t stop doing it, no matter how many times we ask them to stop.

Once again, radiation in space is a big problem. It’s out there, it’s everywhere, and we don’t have a great way to protect against it. Especially when it wrecks our brains.

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3 Responses

  1. bane_m says:

    I seriously doubt that any group of people can leave Earth, travel to Mars and make a colony there without serious interpersonal issues. In fact, I believe that sending 100 people to the Mars may end up even in tragedy. If someone went crazy (or more of them), which laws will apply and will be the “judge”? Will there be 50 cells to imprison them, and 50 just in case?
    Most of the experiments with isolation on the Earth is showing us that when there are more than 2 people in a group, there are issues. In last Russian experiment, 4 out of them 6 had serious psychical issues, that is more than 50% and they were on the Earth!

  2. Aqua4U says:

    “Heck NO! We’re not crazy! WHY? Do we look crazy?”
    NOT something you want a crew mate to state just prior to landing on Mars! No..

    Obviously one of the crew must needs be a trained doctor/psychologist with selection of medications to prescribe if and when the need arises. “Here.. smoke this.”

  3. daveb81 says:

    Considering how immersive VR is, and how it’s obvious to anyone who’s tried it that it’s obviously going to make great strides in improving in the next several years, I think it could go a long way with dealing with the isolation.

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