Alone in the Universe
The Walrus|June 2020
What space missions can teach us about mental health and isolation
ELIZABETH HOWELL

AFTER SPENDING 328 days in space, astronaut Christina Koch had another ambitious goal: to walk on the beach. In February, the forty-one-year-old returned to Earth after living aboard the International Space Station for almost a year and working a strenuous schedule that involved hundreds of science experiments and six spacewalks. (Koch was lucky: spacewalks are rare, and only some astronauts get to go outside during their missions.)

Astronauts often struggle with even the most routine physical activities, including walking, after experiencing the weightlessness of space. Some have returned from much shorter sojourns than Koch’s feeling so physically weak they collapsed during press conferences. Some have also struggled to ease back into everyday life after the thrill of a space mission. To improve the transition, every astronaut follows a tailored rehabilitation program when they return; in Koch’s case, that probably involved sixty days of training — split between nasa’s Johnson Space Center, in Houston, and her home — to readjust to Earth’s gravity. The beach wouldn’t mark the end of Koch’s training, but her coach knew that it would offer a mental health boost and that the astronaut’s desire to see the water again would get her through the first few days of exercises. A week after landing, Koch tweeted a picture of herself standing on a beach, arms outstretched in triumph.

In many ways, space can be just as hard on the mind as it is on the body. For astronauts, the isolation, the confinement, and, at times, the uncertainty of space travel can be crushing even though they often spend years preparing for their missions. And, as researchers continue to establish mental health supports for space-bound crews and study travellers who have returned, they’re finding that there’s still much to learn about the long-term psychological effects of these journeys.

Koch had been preparing for her return to Earth while still in space. She told reporters she experienced no serious mental health issues during the mission, in part due to a personal commitment to “always focusing on what I had and not the things I didn’t have.” She also had regular check-ins with a psychologist.

Over the past several decades, space programs have gotten better at recognizing the role of astronauts’ mental health in the success of their missions, this after at least a handful of trips were almost derailed due to concerns related to mental health. In 1968, the Apollo 7 crew experienced such uncomfortable conditions, including dealing with bad colds onboard, that they dismissed requests from ground control and even refused to wear helmets during the dangerous phase of reentering Earth’s atmosphere; the astronauts were not allowed to fly again. In 1973, the Skylab 4 crew, which spent eighty-four days in space, took a day offfrom in-flight research in the face of unrealistic deadlines and against the wishes of mission control; some went so far as to call this behaviour a “ mutiny.”

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM THE WALRUSView All

Can Denser Be Better?

The idea that dense urban communities are bad for well-being is a myth. As it turns out, having more neighbours may actually help you live better

4 mins read
The Walrus
January/February 2021

Northern Inroads

While Canada ignores the Arctic’s economic potential, China is poised to invest

9 mins read
The Walrus
January/February 2021

How to Save the Middle Class

Today’s vision of the good life is rooted in twentieth-century ideals. It’s time to reinvent it

10+ mins read
The Walrus
January/February 2021

Return of the Anti-Vaxers

To those who think vaccines are harmful, covid-19 is just another conspiracy

8 mins read
The Walrus
January/February 2021

Root Cause

Why my mother’s cassava pie is more than a comfort food

3 mins read
The Walrus
January/February 2021

Why Do We See Dead People?

Humans have always sensed the ghosts of loved ones. It’s only in the last century that we convinced ourselves this was a problem

10+ mins read
The Walrus
January/February 2021

The Myth of Universal Health Care

Two physicians on what it would take for Canada’s health care system to deliver on its promises

10+ mins read
The Walrus
January/February 2021

Still Unnamed

The report by the Royal Commission on the Status of Women was a major milestone for gender equality in Canada, but it failed to address the LGBTQ community. SARAH RATCHFORD explains that while we’ve come a long way in recognizing gender nonconforming folks, there’s more work to be done

3 mins read
The Walrus
January/February 2021

The Case for Affordable Child Care

The pandemic has underscored the need for a national child care program

10 mins read
The Walrus
January/February 2021

Welcome to the Willyverse

William Ukoh photographs a world of leisure and freedom

4 mins read
The Walrus
November/December 2020
RELATED STORIES

A Teacher's Lifesaving Call

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Julia Koch began what was only her second year as a first-grade teacher in a virtual classroom at Edgewood Elementary School in Muskegon Heights, Michigan. One September afternoon a few weeks into the school year, she received a call from Cynthia Phillips, who was having technical difficulties with her granddaughter’s tools for online learning.

2 mins read
Reader's Digest US
March 2021

RIGHT AT HOME: SPACE-THEMED DECOR BRINGS THE HEAVENS INDOORS

It was a tough year here on Earth, but 2020 was a bright spot for space exploration. SpaceX sent its futuristic Starship to new heights, three countries launched Mars missions, and robots grabbed debris from the moon and an asteroid.

3 mins read
AppleMagazine
AppleMagazine #483

NASA'S MONKEY MASSACRE!

Research animals slaughtered instead of being set free

2 mins read
Globe
January 25, 2021

RIP: MARS DIGGER BITES THE DUST AFTER 2 YEARS ON RED PLANET

NASA declared the Mars digger dead after failing to burrow deep into the red planet to take its temperature.

1 min read
AppleMagazine
AppleMagazine #482

UAS TRAFFIC MANAGEMENT The Key to the Future of Drones

In 2012, Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which established a deadline for the agency: achieve full integration of drones into the airspace by 2015. As the calendar rolls over into 2021, this begs an obvious question: “Are we there yet?”

10+ mins read
RotorDrone
February/ March 2021

Tales From the Field – A cold one on mars

Kellie Gerardi, bioastronautics researcher at the International Institute for Austronautical Science

1 min read
Popular Science
Winter 2020

FEDS: FRAUDSTER DUPED INVESTORS WITH FALSE CLAIMS ABOUT NASA

The founder of a nanotechnology company was arrested Wednesday on fraud charges after authorities said he accepted over $12 million from investors who were told NASA was helping him develop a breathalyzer to detect cancer and narcotics.

2 mins read
Techlife News
December 12, 2020

US-EUROPEAN OCEAN MONITORING SATELLITE LAUNCHES INTO ORBIT

A U.S.-European satellite designed to extend a decades-long measurement of global sea surface heights was launched into Earth orbit from California last Saturday.

2 mins read
AppleMagazine
AppleMagazine #474

LIVING THE DREAM

After the author arrives in Maine’s fabled North Woods with a moose tag in his pocket, an adventure he’s been wanting to take his entire hunting life, reality sets in, and he learns a valuable lesson: Be careful what you wish for

10+ mins read
Field & Stream
Volume 125 - Issue 4, 2020

MOON HOLDS MORE WATER IN MORE PLACES THAN EVER THOUGHT

NASA’s astrophysics director Paul Hertz said it’s too soon to know whether this water — found in and around the southern hemisphere’s sunlit Clavius Crater — would be accessible.

3 mins read
Techlife News
Techlife News #470