The Current

'It's like a hall of mirrors': In a spacecraft, some personalities work better than others

The technology to send astronauts to Mars may be here before we know it, but the trip to get there could put astronauts under serious psychological strain. We look at some of the work being done to understand and improve that often-overlooked aspect of travelling to the stars: astronauts' mental health.

New study tests astronauts' mental health, relationships on long-distance missions

A new study called the Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) is looking at the behaviour of crews on mock space missions to gain a better understanding of their mental health and interpersonal relationships. (NASA)
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Here on Earth, if you need a break from someone who's getting on your nerves, you can usually just walk away. But for astronauts in space, there's nowhere to run and hide.

"If you think about a spacecraft, it's like a hall of mirrors; every quality of every other person is getting amplified and exacerbated. You're seeing it day in and day out," said Leslie DeChurch, a psychology and communications professor at Northwestern University in Illinois.

"A characteristic that might be great from nine to five might not be great from nine to nine for a thousand days straight," she told The Current's guest host Laura Lynch.

Northwestern University professor Leslie DeChurch is the principal investigator on the HERA project. (Jacque Brund)

With the possibility of deep space travel on the horizon, researchers like DeChurch are looking at ways to keep astronauts sane while they live and work together in close quarters — far, far away from home.

She's the principal investigator on a new study called the Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA). The goal is to better understand what happens to astronauts' mental well-being and interpersonal relationships when they travel in close quarters on long-distance space missions.

For the project, experts are studying healthy people aged 25 to 55, who have a degree in science, math or engineering, and exhibit qualities similar to future astronauts on missions up to 45 days long.

Narcissists no good in space

Researchers are finding there are certain traits that make people better suited for long-distance space exploration — intelligence, resiliency, an attitude of collectivism, and positive humour— and some that simply don't work — like narcissism or highly individualistic attitudes.

HERA is based at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. It's a three-story habitat where experts are testing isolation, confinement and remote conditions in exploration scenarios. (NASA)

A long-distance space mission to Mars would be significantly longer than the practice missions involved in the HERA project.

But DeChurch sees the study as an important step in the plan to get humans to the Red Planet.

"I wouldn't say that we could go straight from a 45-day mission to a thousand days with an extended time on Mars surface," she said.

"The nice thing about these studies is that we can run a lot of them ... and we can start to get an understanding of what's working and what's not working."

Professor Leslie DeChurch calls the HERA project a stepping stone to sending humans to Mars. (NASA)

To learn more about the research that's happening around astronaut mental health, Lynch spoke with:

  • Leslie DeChurch, psychology and communications professor at Northwestern University in Illinois.
  • Dave Williams, a retired Canadian astronaut and author of Defying Limits: Lessons from the Edge of the Universe.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Samira Mohyeddin.

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