Space psychologists are essential to making human spaceflight safe and successful. They are involved in astronaut selection and training as well as monitoring them, their families and the colleagues supporting them before, during and after the mission. This not only allows the current mission to succeed but also guides future mission planning decisions to improve astronaut performance. The work space psychologists do will be a significant contributor towards the feasibility of long-duration missions to the Moon and Mars.
What do space psychologists do?
Humans' ability to survive in space for long durations is arguably one of our greatest achievements as a species. But while the launch vehicles, space stations and spacesuits which keep the astronauts protected from the hostile vacuum of space are well-publicised, the role played by space psychologists is too often left out of the discussion - despite their work being paramount to ensuring safe and successful human spaceflight.
The psychological strains on astronauts are enormous: living with a very small group of people, far from physical help and the familiarity of Earth, with constant load background noise and nowhere to get a breath of fresh air would take its toll on any ‘normal’ human being. And that’s before the astronauts’ enormous workload has been considered.
That is why space psychologists are heavily involved in the astronaut selection process, ensuring that only candidates who can deal with these pressures and work well in small teams effectively are selected. This work is done through tests the space psychologists devise, supervise and then analyse, as well as interviewing the candidates. It was space psychologists who determined that single-sex crews don’t work as well as mixed crews, so NASA now selects male and female astronauts for each mission.
Once the astronauts begin their training the space psychologists will condition them to the mental challenges of spaceflight. Communication (verbal and non-verbal) and conflict management skills are honed in exercises the space psychologists develop.
On-orbit they monitor the astronauts’ behaviour and mental health. This allows for intervention should the situation require it, but space psychologists can also use the data they gather and the behaviours they observe to improve future spaceflight missions or even understand better the implications of prolonged isolation on Earth.
But astronauts are not the sole focus of a space psychologist’s efforts: they also offer assistance to the astronauts’ families. Having a loved one go to space is arguably more stressful for those remaining on Earth, so ensuring they can deal with the situation is equally important for their mental wellbeing.
With increased focus on crewed missions to the Moon and Mars, the Earth-based research space psychologists carry out is becoming ever more important to deal with the very different challenges of long-duration spaceflight much further from Earth. These new challenges will bring other fields to the forefront of space psychologists’ work. I/O psychology (industrial and organisational psychology) and behavioural science, which focus on how groups of people interact and work together, will help ensure crews continue to operate successfully for the duration of their long missions. Neuropsychology and biopsychology, the study of how behaviour is linked to the brain and the nervous system, will improve understanding of which factors influence an astronaut’s mood.
Isolation studies in the desert are already being run to monitor participants’ behaviour and allow mission planners to adapt habitats and schedules to improve astronaut performance. Robotic assistants, like AstroBee and CIMON, are being used on the ISS as part of psychology studies to deliver more effective and accessible help to astronauts so far from home that real-time communications become impossible. These studies have shown that a robot with a human face and voice is much better in a stressful situation - even the most intelligent and resilient spacefarers like a friendly face in a crisis!
This wide variety of tasks means that some space psychologists focus on research into new methods and techniques while others apply this knowledge - similar to the way in which doctors administer a treatment, which their research-based colleagues have designed, to a patient.
Which qualifications are required?
An undergraduate degree in psychology is a prerequisite, normally followed by a Master’s to specialise further in a subdomain of psychology. Space psychologists often also do a PhD in one of many fields. Many space psychologists gain experience in academic research or the domain of industrial and organisational psychology before starting at a space agency or university research department.
What are the skills required?
- Space psychologists work with many different people (be they astronauts, test participants or mission planners) on a daily basis during trials and training, so excellent people skills and are essential
- The results of trials and observed behaviour have to be analysed in order to make use of them for future decisions, so data analysis and a good understanding of stats is required
- Space psychologists spend lots of time away from the office to supervise trials, assist in astronaut selection and training and monitor astronaut behaviour so a willingness to work somewhere else each week should be given
- Getting into the finer details of the what the work involves, a space psychologist needs to be skilled at:
- organisational psychology;
- conducting assessments of patients;
- designing/implementing/evaluating leading edge interventions based on psychotherapy and organisational development techniques;
- the ability to use qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods to select and monitor individuals and team members, and to evaluate the interventions administered in order to drive the field towards precision medicine;
- the ability to connect psychometrics, biomarker and digital behavioural data to draw conclusions and advise/design strategies and solutions.
Should you be interested in learning more about the subject, feel free to contact Károly Kornél Schlosser, who kindly advised the author on the content of this article, at [email protected]