Laying on your back in a field and staring up into the night's sky is often enough to make you feel lonely, isolated and insignificant. The huge, infinite expanse of space with its cold, hard utility, its inhospitable nature and its apparent lack of life makes it a beautiful, but terrifying place. Imagine, however, what it is actually like to be floating around in the void of the universe - with only few inches of metal protecting you from almost immediate death.
This is what astronauts have to endure on each of their missions, and it's not just the danger. They must also deal with claustrophobic conditions, weightlessness, a lack of home comforts, stressful work, physical deterioration and each other's annoying habits. With this mind, it only makes sense that astronauts could go crazy in space.
This is certainly a trope of sci-fi shows and films, with some spacefarers falling victim to a cabin fever-like illness colloquially known as 'Space Madness'. As this hilarious Toast article points out, space madness can come in many forms, but often it can involve forgetting about the mission, wanting to kill everyone on board, or identifying with whatever strange alien lifeform is killing off your crew one-by-one. Furthermore, from the looks of the trailer, it could be one of the many issues Matt Damon's character will have to contend with when he is left stranded alone on Mars in Ridley Scott's The Martian.
However, despite the fanciful imaginations of film makers, it seems space madness has never actually manifested itself with real astronauts, although that doesn't mean space agencies haven't prepared for it.
The Suicidal Nature of Astronauts?
In the early days of space exploration, NASA was concerned about the possibility of astronauts becoming unhinged during missions. This fear was abetted by beliefs that the kind of people who would volunteer for space missions would already be of dubious mental fortitude. A report into space psychiatry by the American Journal of Psychiatry stated, "Volunteers for dangerous missions occasionally have rather bizarre motivations", while historian Matthew H. Hersch suggests NASA were concerned early astronaut volunteers would be "impulsive, suicidal, sexually aberrant thrill-seekers."
Furthermore, even those which seemed normal could become quickly unravelled in space and doom their expensive missions. Although in the case of the Russian cosmonaut in Armageddon, his craziness may have actually saved the day:
To deal with this, psychiatrists suggested creating a robust screening process which in testers should be vigilant for "gross judgmental defects or other major defects in ego integration".
However, the findings of NASA did not suggest this was the case. In fact, the volunteers for space missions often appeared to be of incredibly good mental health. Often they showed the same qualities associated with the "stereotypical NASA nerd". Most were engineers with extensive experience in stressful jobs (nearly all were airforce pilots), while they also showed themselves to be professional, down to earth and comfortable around dangerous machines. NASA reports stated that on average they were men with “excellent interpersonal skills and slight obsessive-compulsive tendencies.”
Ultimately, Hersch states NASA found the whole group was free of “psychosis, clinically significant neurosis or personality disorder.” Many candidates were rejected, but this was always for failure in intellectual or physical aptitude tests, and not for psychological reasons.
When astronauts did return from space, NASA actually discovered their missions had often 'flattened' their personalities and had not created extreme emotional or psychological reactions.
How Do You Deal With Space Madness?
Despite no evidence of space madness ever happening, NASA and other space agencies still have guidelines to deal with troublesome or mentally unsound astronauts in space.
According to the detailed guidelines, unsound astronauts should have their wrists and ankles bound with duct tape and then be tied down with a bungee cord. If they continue to struggle or cause trouble, transquilizers can be also used to calm them. The instructions further state:
Talk with the patient while you are restraining him. Explain what you are doing, and that you are using a restraint to ensure that he is safe.
What comes after isn't specifically laid out in the instructions, but NASA spokesman James Hartfield explained that mission control, a flight surgeon on the ground and the commander of the mission in space would decide on an individual basis what to do. In the case of a shuttle flight, this could mean aborting the mission and returning to Earth, while astronauts on the International Space Station may also be sent back to Earth.
Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like NASA astronauts are taught about the finer details of zero-gravity combat, which means subduing a 'space mad' colleague might be difficult. Hartfield confirmed there are no guns on space missions, as their intentional or accidental use was likely to breach the spacecraft and kill everyone on board. Until 2006, Russian cosmonaut missions did travel with a triple barrelled TOZ 82 pistol strapped to the exterior of the Soyuz capsule. However, this weapon wasn't supposed to be used against aliens and/or other astronauts, instead it was meant as a survival tool for cosmonauts who may land off target in the Siberian wilderness upon returning to Earth.
Despite this, the ISS is well stocked with medication used to threat psychosis. The medical kit on the station include tranquillizers as well as other anti-depression, anti-anxiety and anti-psychotic medication.
Although there have been no examples of space madness occurring on missions, some returning astronauts did experience psychological problems later in their lives, for example Buzz Aldrin struggled with alcoholism and depression, while former astronaut Lisa Nowak was arrested for trying to kidnap an apparent love rival.
However, there was no evidence to suggest this was more common with astronauts than any other section of the public, with Aldrin himself claimed he suffered from a “good, old-fashioned, American nervous breakdown". Despite this, Nowak's episode did lead to a reevaluating of NASA's screening process for astronauts.