UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 12 | Dec.
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
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
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
“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
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
“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.”