“Isolation isn’t the biggest problem”

Aurora Australis, seen from the International Space Station. Photo by NASA.

It’s hard to imagine a more solitary place than space. How do astronauts prepare for it? We spoke with researcher Jack Stuster, who has helped NASA develop a training.

You research and counsel astronauts in outer space. Judging from your experience: is space a lonely place?
Let me go back one step before answering: I study conditions on earth analogous to those on a spacecraft – Antarctic research stations or expeditions for example – and I study the behavior of astronauts working in isolation and confinement on board the International Space Station (ISS). That research was conducted in two phases. Between 2003 and 2009, members of two-or three-members crews participated in the study and from 2011 up to this year, members of six-person-crews participated in the study. Neither the first nor the second phase revealed that loneliness is a problem for the astronauts.

Jack Stuster is President and Principal Scientist at Anacapa Sciences. For NASA, he has contributed to the development of training of astronauts concerning the behavioral issues associated with isolation and confinement.

Jack Stuster is President and Principal Scientist at Anacapa Sciences. For NASA, he has contributed to the development of training of astronauts concerning the behavioral issues associated with isolation and confinement.

How come?
Even with small crews, as phase one has revealed, astronauts do not get very lonely. They might be alone all day but they are busy working and meet the others over dinner later. Every minute in space is programmed in advance so that there is relatively little free-time and when there is some, the astronauts tend to spend it together with their crew-mates. I ask astronauts to write a sort of diary to see how they feel and I have only very rarely read about loneliness or lack of personal space. Between phase one and phase two, private sleep quarters were added and so the astronauts always have the possibility to interact with others but they can also withdraw to their own sleeping chamber. I think the main reason why astronauts don’t get lonely is because they are too busy. However, there have been occasions where a supply spacecraft was severely delayed and the astronauts would have to wait for the material it was supposed to bring them. Then all of a sudden, astronauts have relatively little to do and that can become a problem.

Because they have the time to allow for loneliness?
From their journals, I learned that during such incidents, the astronauts felt under-challenged, bored and useless. But even here, loneliness is not the biggest problem. Let’s also not forget that the astronauts have e-mail and a phone with which they can call their friends and family. This helps a lot with the negative effects that separation from the loved ones can entail. Now on an expedition to Mars, this will not be possible. Astronauts will have e-mail but there will be no possibility for phone calls when the time delays increase beyond a few minutes.

Allegedly, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen did not take a pocket knife with him on his polar expeditions but only the parts required to build one because he said that boredom is the greatest enemy of the explorer. Your findings seem to confirm that.
Boredom was the number one enemy of the polar explorers and when Amundsen traversed the North-West passage, he only took with him the raw materials to make trade items with the Eskimos rather than pre-manufactured items because he knew that he had to keep himself and his crew busy. When Fridtjof Nansen attempted to reach the North Pole, he had on board a library of a thousand volumes, music and wonderful food to fill the free time. The engineers even disassembledand re-assembled the engines on board twice to keep busy when the ship was locked in the ice., Nansen reported in his journal that the saddest day of the expedition was the day they ran out of beer.

“Being behind schedule is stressful, but having nothing to do would be worse.”

So work is the best remedy against negative feelings on such expeditions?
As I said, the only time that astronauts report negative feelings is when they have nothing to do. So NASA puts them on a very tight schedule so that there is always something to do. Astronauts are constantly running behind schedule which is an awful feeling for a person with high achievement goals which all astronauts are. Being behind schedule is probably the most stressful thing for astronauts but having nothing at all to do would be even worse.

How do the astronauts schedule their day in an environment that is not regulated by sunrise and sunset?
The ground crew schedules the day for the astronauts and trains their body clocks. They go by Greenwich Mean Time and wake up at the same time every morning except on weekends. Even though they have many sunrises and sunsets throughout the day – every 90 minutes basically – because they circle the globe, they do have a day schedule because of their work schedule. But some astronauts have problems adjusting to this because of the excitement. I mean it is a unique experience to look down at Earth! It is something that almost nobody will ever experience and it is so exciting that they sometimes forget to go to sleep at the set time. If they have problems sleeping, there are also sleeping aids on board that can be taken in special cases when sleep schedules change. So there are a lot of things that help them adjust to a regular day and night schedule.

Obviously there are many things you can do to prepare astronauts for issues like sleeping disorders but are there things you can do to prepare them for the distress of solitude?
The astronauts are almost never in complete solitude, unless they wish so. I am not aware that there is formal training but there are or have been simulations. In Russia, six test subjects were locked in a small module for 520 days to study the effect isolation has on their mental state and body. NASA is currently conducting 30 day simulations with four member crews. But these simulations cannot train the crew members for the special conditions on board of the ISS, they can only prepare them to a certain extent. Just knowing that you will experience certain conditions like isolation and confinement can help you a lot to deal with them later on. Because these conditions can cause some severe problems.

Like what?
Because of the pressure of isolation, trivial issues can become very serious issues and this can lead to arguments and fights between the crew members which must be avoided at all cost. Knowing about this helps you to cope with it.

So there is no way to predict how astronauts will react to certain conditions?
No, they are humans and we humans are too complex to be predictable. Especially in environments like outer space. But behavioral psychology teaches us that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. So if you plan a long and difficult exploration, you should of course pick crew members who have demonstrated that they are capable of living and working in isolation and confinement.

“Going to Mars would be a challenge to even the most experience astronaut.”

That is where the simulations overlook a crucial question: can you simulate solitude here on Earth and predict future behavior in space when the conditions of these environments are so different? Solitude on Earth surely is different than solitude in space.
I believe that solitude on the ISS is easier to deal with than solitude or isolation at a small Antarctic station, because work is performed at a high tempo and the scenery is beautiful and constantly changing. One astronaut wrote in his journal that no matter how bad things are going on board or how stressed one might be, the view fixes everything. On an expedition to Mars, where your destination is just a little dot in the sky and ultimately your home becomes just a little dot in the sky, that will make things very different. The solitude that interplanetary explorers will experience will be qualitatively different from what ISS astronauts experience.

How so?
A few years back, I gave a lecture about expeditions to Mars and a distinguished and experienced astronaut walked up to me afterwards and told me that he has always been comfortable being in the Earth-moon-shuttle system, but that he might not be the correct person to leave low Earth orbit and head to Mars. That, to me, revealed a self-awareness that astronauts have and that goes both ways: they know how capable they are but they also know their limitations. Going to Mars and having Earth so far away for two or three years would be a challenge to even the most experienced astronaut.

In his essay “On Solitude”, French philosopher Michel de Montaigne writes that we should have family, friends and property but that we should never make them the masters of our well-being, that we should be able to be happy on our own. Following his reasoning, the perfect astronaut would be a loner.
Not a loner, because interpersonal skills are essential to getting along in isolation and confinement. However, I have recommended that astronauts on an expedition to Mars should not have small children because they would probably regret the separation. I am an advocate of selecting husband-and-wife-teams, but this definitely is a minority opinion.

Would that not be a possible source of conflict?
Yes and no. There could be conflict between married people, but if they have been married a long time it demonstrates their compatibility and fidelity to a cause, two essential personal qualities. Also, people who have been married for 25 years probably know how to deal with conflict situations. There would, of course, be other advantages.

Are there astronauts who value the solitude in space because they enjoy having that time on their own?
Yes, absolutely! The astronauts are there to work and they often consider too much personal contact to be a burden. Sometimes, when the crew of the ISS gets visitors or when new crew members arrive, they feel happy at first but it can quickly turn into an annoyance because it disrupts the rhythm and work flow.

You have said that in the extreme conditions that astronauts find themselves, food becomes extremely important. Can you tell us why?
Food assumes added importance when usual sources of gratification such as family, friends, or hobbies are denied,. So the astronauts learn to cherish what they have up there. Their exercise machines become extremely important and so does food. Unfortunately, food has become kind of a disappointment to them in the sense that the options are very limited. But ground control is very busy making the food experience as pleasant as possible. Often, the people packing the food include small hidden messages, wishing the crew a good mission. Something like that can really cheer a person up after a long day of work. This has tradition: even during the early Polar expeditions, explorers would find little notes in their food to console and cheer them up.

“Solitude binds astronauts together.”

Is there a food that astronauts crave in particular?
Tortillas – by far. Astronauts never get enough tortillas. They train in Texas so they get used to eating Mexican food. But the other thing is that food starts to float away in space. So you need something that keeps the food together. What better than a tortilla?

Popular culture often paints the picture of the lonely astronaut such as David Bowie’s Major Tom, Elton John’s Rocket Man or Matt Damon in the movie The Martian. How accurate are these portrayals or descriptions?
It’s not very accurate because astronauts are always in groups, but it would be a completely accurate description if an astronaut were to be stranded somewhere, which is not very likely but possible. The Martian depicts a solitude that is not completely unrealistic in that sense. When a person is all by him- or herself, the things around start to change. You no longer perceive your environment the same. We know for example from prisoners in solitary confinement that all they need is the assurance that somebody is close to them. Even the noises coming from other people are enough to feel like you are not completely alone.

Is there one concluding observation that you can share from your research?
I have found that solitude and the extreme conditions in space have had a very positive effect on how the crew members deal with each other. There is sometimes a bit of friction among the American crew members or among the Russian crew members, but there has never been conflict between the Americans and Russians, the Americans and Europeans, or the Russians and Europeans – or with the Japanese. There have been several crews composed of former American and Russian fighter pilots. They had trained for years to kill each other but there they were, 230 miles above the Earth, working together in complete harmony under arduous conditions. The solitude and their common goals bind them together. If they are able to do that in space, we should also be able to do so here on Earth.