First-ever study analyzing 'space culture' underway

UBC sociology professor leads 'first of its kind' psychosocial study of the International Space Station

UBC sociology professor leads study of astronauts onboard the International Space Station

Astronauts aboard the international Space Station got creative on Halloween, dressing up in a variety of costumes. A new study examines the cultural bonds that emerge in outer space. (Paolo Nespoli/Twitter)

In space, no one can hear you scream — unless you're cheering for your favourite hockey team.

Life on the International Space Station (ISS) bears a lot of similarities to life on Earth. There's Wi-Fi, cable, and even Halloween costume parties. It's all meant to help astronauts feel at home while they're floating 400 kilometres above sea level.

But for the first time, Canadian researchers are examining how rocket men and women adapt to life in the cosmos during long-term space missions — and it could have wider implications for space travel beyond the moon.

"We're looking at how astronauts from a variety of cultures and nationalities live together on the space station and possibly create a shared culture," said Dr. Phyllis Johnson, a UBC-based researcher and principal investigator of the study.

"A space culture might develop."

At Home in Space

The project is called At Home in Space, and it's billed as the first ever psychosocial study of astronauts on the International Space Station.

Researchers aim to figure out how astronauts make themselves feel at home while aboard the space station, and uncover the cultural norms that emerge within the confines of an isolated spacecraft.

"We're also interested in seeing how living in space has changed their particular lives," said Johnson.

Astronauts complete a series of questionnaires before, during and after their months-long stay in the great beyond, and are also encouraged to take photos that accurately depict 'life in space'. 

Space culture

Johnson expects that a unique 'space culture' might exist on the space station — a way of life that many astronauts come to identify with during their time in orbit.

"Maybe there are things like space traditions that are important to them," said Johnson.

Johnson points to Yuri Gagarin Day, an annual celebration held on the ISS every April 12 that honours the first manned trip to outer space, as a notable cultural event that's unique to astronauts.

Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man to travel into space, hits the headline of the US paper "The Huntsville Times" on April 12, 1961 after oribiting Earth aboard the Vostok I spaceship. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read /AFP/Getty Images) (AFP/Getty)

"They could have space traditions that they celebrate. Do they mount mission patches? Change of command ceremonies? Those would be certain kinds of things that would relate to space — but we don't know how important they are to them."

Long-term implications

Johnson says understanding how astronauts adjust to the new living environment could be the key to planning for longer-term manned missions like the seemingly inevitable voyage to Mars.

"How are they adjusting to this new environment? How do people cope with potential isolation? How do they make it interesting in their lives? How do they keep carrying out their work, and enjoying their work?"

NASA currently plans on sending humans to Mars in the 2030s. The journey would take years for travellers, with very limited contact to the outside world.

Johnson hopes the results of her study could enhance travel conditions for those voyagers.

"If you're going to to go somewhere and be somewhere for a long period of time, and not have as much contact with your normal experiences on Earth, then we need to know how people do it, and what makes it a good experience for them."

Researchers hope to complete the study by 2020.

In this Jan. 6, 2017 made available by NASA, astronaut Peggy Whitson works during a spacewalk outside the International Space Station. Whitson and fellow astronaut Shane Kimbrough successfully installed three new adapter plates and hooked up electrical connections for three of the six new lithium-ion batteries on the ISS. (NASA via AP)

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Jon Hernandez

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Jon Hernandez is an award-winning multimedia journalist from Vancouver, British Columbia. His reporting has explored mass international migration in Chile, controversial logging practices in British Columbia, and the global HIV/AIDS epidemic. Follow Jon Hernandez on Twitter: