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Can psychologists help NASA?

February 9, 2007 By Michael Hopkin This article courtesy of Nature News.

asks how easy it is to pick personalities that survive high stress.

The arrest of astronaut Lisa Nowak for attempted murder this week has raised questions about NASA's policies on safeguarding the emotional welfare of its staff. Astronauts undergo rigorous psychometric evaluation on their recruitment, in an attempt to screen out those who might crack under pressure. But can psychological monitoring really ensure that staff are emotionally sound and ready to fly?

Nowak was arrested on 5 February after driving 1,600 kilometres to confront US Air Force captain Colleen Shipman, whom she apparently believed to be a 'love rival' in her affections for another member of NASA's astronaut corps. Before this infamous altercation, Nowak had been scheduled to fulfil the vital ground role of capsule communicator for a shuttle mission scheduled for take-off on 15 March. Her arrest means she is temporarily suspended from duty.

NASA has responded by pledging to review its practices in psychological testing, to find out whether astronauts are receiving "the level of psychological and medical care and attention they need", according to deputy adminstrator Shana Dale.

Many people, including retired astronaut Jerry Linenger, have pointed out the nightmare that would result if someone were to 'snap' during, say, a mission to Mars.

Imperfect tests

But there are those who doubt whether psychological testing is the answer. Available tests that claim to identify those personalities that will cope best in stressful situations are not validated, says Peter Marquis, who runs the medical unit at the British Antarctic Survey — another organization that sends people to remote locations for psychologically demanding scientific missions.

The number of people who have been into space or spent significant time in Antarctica is too small for rigorous analysis of the tests, he says. Psychologists can claim to predict who will deal with the challenge, but no one has followed up to see whether they actually came through it unscathed.

Additionally, psychological testing might not flag up problems in advance, simply because these problems might not exist before a given mission. There is evidence to suggest that spaceflight constitutes a significant stress that can alter one's state of mind — what psychologists call a 'transformational experience'.

Many of the Apollo astronauts, for example, struggled to adjust back to life on Earth because nothing could match up to the rush of walking on the Moon. "It's like coming back from any sort of fantastic trip," says Marquis. "When I came back from Antarctica, it was a shock being in the normal world. People seemed much ruder; I could smell the pollution more."

High pressure

Repeated psychological questioning may be required. NASA offers psychological help to distressed astronauts, but there remains the fear that calling on such help might dent their chances of future flights. "They won't come to you and say 'I've got a problem'," says former NASA physician Jon Clark.

Nowak's actions might also have been prompted by the intense bond forged between people in stressful situations, says Steve Blinkhorn, an independent psychologist based near London. "It's the type of bonding that occurs when you put people in pressure-cooker situations," Blinkhorn says.

But in the end, he adds, predicting any kind of romantic behaviour is very difficult. Perhaps the only thing that can be said with certainty is that relationships within NASA's astronaut corps are bound to bloom. "Like any expedition, the male-female thing will happen," says Marquis. "It's a pretty basic human story and at the end of the day it can happen to anyone."


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