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UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 12 | Dec. 4, 2003

Enough Tribbles for One Day

Mapping the Psychological Effects of Space and Polar Missions

By Erica Smishek

In the world of fiction, astronauts and Polar explorers often go mad, are overtaken by small, irresistibly cute furry creatures, or get killed by alien life forms or mysterious disease. The ending is rarely a happy one.

In this world, however, these modern-day adventurers usually face slightly more banal challenges -- post-mission career pursuits and goals, relationship and family issues, spiritual crisis.

Yet no one can deny that the lives of these men and women are a little less ordinary than many and that weeks or months isolated in space or at polar research stations has an impact on them, their colleagues and their families.

Peter Suedfeld, professor emeritus of psychology at UBC, has embarked on a four-year study to determine exactly what that impact is. In the first behavioural science contract awarded by the Canadian Space Agency, Suedfeld will research the values, motivations, problem-solving approaches, emotional reactions and spiritual experiences of participants before, during and after polar and space missions as well as the reactions of their organizational support personnel. His wife, UBC Social Work and Family Studies associate professor Phyllis Johnson, will study the reactions of their families.

“It’s clear if you look at the autobiographies of astronauts that having flown in space puts them on a different track in life,” says Suedfeld. “Some stay in the space program, some go into business, some go into academia.

“But a lot take some totally unpredictable paths. Some become artists [Alan Bean] or writers [“Buzz” Aldrin]; one, James Irwin, spent the rest of his life looking for Noah’s Ark.”

Suedfeld has investigated the psychological effects of physical isolation and sensory deprivation in polar regions since the mid-1980s. He made six trips to the High Arctic, studying staff at weather stations and directing two summer research stations, and conducted three research sessions in the Antarctic -- two at the U.S. McMurdo research station and one aboard an Argentine ship.

“There isn’t that much knowledge about what has to be done to minimize the negative impact of these missions,” he says. “And much of the research has also ignored the positive impact.”

Suedfeld says the favourable long-term psychological effects of working in such secluded environments outweigh the occasional undesirable short-term changes (sleep disturbances, anxiety attacks, concentration problems, sadness).

“There can be a real sense of achievement for most of the participants on these missions. And there is a real sense of awe at the grandeur of the environment they’re in,” he says.

“It often makes people reorganize their priorities. And it can give them a profound feeling of hope, optimism and love.”

Suedfeld will compare the 40-year span of manned space flight with early Antarctic explorations. Specifically, he and Johnson will do a thematic content analysis of the materials -- diaries, letters, journals, interviews, autobiographies, etc. -- that have been written or recorded by participants, support personnel and family members on missions sponsored from various countries around the world.

“There has been a drastic change in how astronauts have been viewed by the public just as there was with Antarctica. At first, they were pioneers; they became very famous and went on triumphal tours. But who is in the Antarctic now? Whom can you name? The public doesn’t know what’s going on down there.

“It’s the same thing with astronauts. We knew those on the first Apollo missions. But who were the last 10 or 20 people to go into space? People will know the names if there was a disaster but we don’t know the average working astronaut.

“I’m curious how this change in adulation and fame affects the explorers and astronauts themselves.”

Suedfeld’s previous research has included studies in political, environmental, social, health and cognitive psychology as well as personality. With a general focus on how people cope with and adapt to demanding, challenging and stressful experiences, he has completed archival studies of decision-making during international and personal crises, participant observation and field studies in polar stations, and interviews with Holocaust survivors, prisoners in solitary confinement, astronauts and polar explorers.

He says the new study won’t help with the selection process for future space missions but instead will better prepare participants, their families and the organizational support staff for the missions and provide support after the fact.

“So few psychologists are involved in this field -- yet the issues are applicable to the rest of the world,” Suedfeld says. “It is a great research opportunity and I hope this will lead to more behavioural science research in a space context by Canadians.”

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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