One of David Bowie’s most popular and memorable hits is the song ‘Space Oddity.’ Released in 1969, just before the launch of Apollo 11 and the first moon walk, it might be particularly important in launching Bowie’s career; it was his first UK Top 5 hit.
The lyrics describe an astronaut named ‘Major Tom’, who encounters an ominous technical problem during a space flight. Were the lyrics an eerie prophecy of UK astronaut Tim Peake’s first space-walk last week? NASA cut short the trip outside the space station because of a leaking helmet crisis.
Both in the song and in real life, the astronaut at the center of the emergency remains amazingly calm despite being in such a hazardous environment and in both cases, seems content to enjoy the view. Tim Peake described his first walk as “exhilarating,” so is there something especially resilient about the psychology of astronauts, or can they ‘flip out’ just like the rest of us?
Psychological Reactions in Space
The authors of a new study entitled, “Coping strategies during and after spaceflight: Data from retired cosmonauts,” argue that negative psychological reactions in space are less publicized than catastrophic mechanical failures.
However, the authors, from the University of British Columbia, Canada, and Institute for Biomedical Problems, Russian Academy of Sciences, contend that such psychological reactions have significantly undermined the success of space missions in the past.
Concern over astronauts’ coping strategies has been exacerbated by the increasing duration of their time away from home in recent missions,and the growing diversity of crews’ professional training, background, gender, language and nationality.
In this study, recently published in the academic journal, Acta Astronautica,” 20 retired male Russian cosmonauts with an age range of 45–74, participated. They were evenly divided between those who had their last spaceflight before the year 2000 and those whose last flight had been more recent. Half of the group spent a total of more than a year in space.
The oldest group of cosmonauts, in their 60s and 70s, were most likely to mention ‘confrontation’ as a coping strategy.
The authors, Peter Suedfeld, Jelena Brcic, Phyllis Johnson, and Vadim Gushin, explain that they have no way of establishing whether this surprising finding is a function of aging, more time since their retirement from spaceflight, a feeling of greater independence from the space agency, a changed level of interest in impression management or deeper reflection.
Another unexpected finding was the consistently very high importance of social support as a coping strategy. Surviving in space emerges from this study as appearing to be much more of an interactive, mutually cooperative enterprise, than rugged individualism.
There was no significant difference in this finding between earlier and more recent fliers, ruling out one possible explanation – that the pioneering lone adventurers have given way to the team spirit of the groups flying in larger spacecrafts.
The old idea of the “Right Stuff” was that astronauts were self-sufficient, inner-directed, factually competent – and, although convivial in company, essentially loners.
Space agencies, early astronauts, and researchers had expected that planning, active problem solving, would be the predominant coping style in space. As a result, space organizations around the world selected candidates with a solid background in high-performance, usually military aviation. Hence, Bowie’s hero in the song is ‘Major’ Tom.