June 20, 2019, will mark the 50th anniversary of the first successful human space flight to the surface of the Moon. Since the first landmark journey, spaceflight has made leaps and bounds of progress, with astronauts now in orbit around the Earth in the International Space Station (ISS). The next step NASA wants to take is putting a man on Mars, and extending humanity’s reach beyond our galaxy. However, prolonged human spaceflight could wreak havoc on the body and mind, especially for expeditions carrying crews far away from the Earth.
How would long space expeditions affect the human psyche?
The first ventures into the final frontier were much shorter for astronauts and caused fewer psychological problems.
The duration of the first Moon walk was just 20 minutes in 1969, and the full mission lasted eight days, three hours and 18 minutes.
Long-term evidence of the effects of space on human mentality didn’t come until these trips started to last much longer.
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Russia was notably the first nation to investigate the effects of long-term space travel on the mind.
The Russian Salyut 6 and Salyut 7 expeditions in 1997 and 1982 were the first six and eight-month missions into space.
During these missions, Soviet scientists noted a marked detrimental effect on their astronauts.
They began to show psychological distress while in space, and according to psychologists, more lengthy missions would exacerbate mental health problems.
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Nick Kanas is a professor of psychology at the University of California, San Francisco.
The professor believes astronauts’ mental health would likely deteriorate on long space trips.
Writing in the British Psychological Society journal, he said astronauts would experience a “profound sense of truly being isolated in the heavens”.
He wrote: “The crew will experience a severe sense of isolation and separation from Earth, with no hope of evacuation or assistance from the ground during emergencies.”
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“The tremendous distances involved will increase the average two-way communication times with Earth from 25 minutes (Mars) to 500 minutes (Neptune).
“Consequently, the crew members will be much more autonomous from mission control than during near-Earth missions, and they will need to plan their schedules and deal with problems themselves.
“Finally, no human being has ever experienced the Earth as an insignificant dot in the heavens, the so-called ‘Earth-out-of-view phenomenon’.
“Since gazing at the Earth has been rated as a major positive factor of being in space, the absence of this experience during an expeditionary mission on crew member psychology may result in increased homesickness, depression, and other unpleasant psychological problems due to the profound sense of truly being isolated in the heavens.”