How to Get Along in Space

NASA has started a new training program to help space station residents fight off cabin fever.

Air & Space Magazine

Thick snow blanketed the aspen woods outside Canadian Forces Base Cold Lake in northern Alberta. Being dumped from a helicopter into this desolate and isolated landscape with only a 30-year-old map, a compass, and a tent would unnerve the most cool-headed of astronauts.

Four-time shuttle flier Jim Wetherbee recalls the frigid predicament in which he and five fellow astronauts found themselves last winter: “The sun was going down and we couldn’t find a path to get up this hill with this 260-pound toboggan,” he says. “There was a lot of pressure on the leader to figure out what to do. It was a classic case where the team started to break down a little bit.”

And all Wetherbee could do was stand back and watch. For this drill, the shuttle mission commander was subordinate to a rookie training for a four-month stint aboard the International Space Station. “I was a little bit worried on one hand, but interested to see what the outcome would be on the other,” Wetherbee confides. “When we finally got to the campsite and got the tent up, there was a huge sense of accomplishment. It gets really scary when it’s 36 degrees below zero.”

Three teams of astronauts journeyed to Cold Lake last February and March to learn team dynamics and the finer points of working together. Their teacher: Canada’s Ministry of Defence, known for its expertise in winter warfare. In a six-day outing, each team of six donned parkas and mukluks to drag an overloaded toboggan through miles of knee-deep snow. There were occasional blizzard conditions—brisk winds blowing dry snow into opaque curtains of white around the astronauts as they huddled together. They cooked on portable stoves and used primitive latrines. They struck and set up camp several times a day. They performed myriad menial tasks and science experiments. Amid increasing physical demands, they were deprived of sleep. All of it was directed on walkie-talkie by survival experts who lurked nearby and spied on the astronauts with night-vision goggles.

“The idea is for them to learn about themselves and coping methods in confined, stressful situations,” says Brian Houlgate, a lieutenant colonel in charge of international programs for the Canadian Aerospace Training Project in Ottawa. The Cold Lake experience is part of a new NASA program designed to emphasize the psychosocial challenges a group must deal with when it is stuck in a harsh environment.

Is the Canadian expedition a decent simulation of spaceflight? Drillmaster Colin Norris suspects so. Says Norris, a winter warfare and survival expert retired from the Canadian army: “I’ve never been up there, but I have been in an arctic tent, and after about three weeks or so, just the way somebody slurps their pork and beans will drive you up the wall.”

 “Ihave talked with some of the original astronauts,” says Nick Kanas, a psychiatrist at the University of California at San Francisco who studies the psychosocial aspects of spaceflight, “and one of them sort of joked and said to me that ‘In my day, our idea of a spaceflight was you go up and you come down in time for cocktails,’ and he says he doesn’t know how people can go up and stay for months on end in space.”

It’s a good question. Traditionally, NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston has focused its training largely on preparing and rehearsing for spacewalks and other mission tasks. From their assignment to a crew until the end of the mission—typically eight months but sometimes as long as two or three years—astronauts work and party together. They share an office and socialize outside it. All this togetherness is supposed to help them work out interpersonal frictions. Usually it works. When it doesn’t, they’re expected to maintain professional decorum.

“It becomes a different story when missions become four, five, six, seven months,” says Kanas. “There are breakdowns I think in people’s ability to tolerate psychosocial stresses after the first couple of months.” The Russian literature, he says, shows that “there seems to be a period of about a month or two where people can kind of handle anything, but after that the psychological and interpersonal stresses start to build and then the factors about territoriality, withdrawing from each other, not getting along, getting tired of hearing the same old story, displacing tension to the ground—all these factors start to build, and I think become progressively worse over time unless they’re dealt with and recognized.”

Between 1996 and 1998, U.S. shuttle astronauts got a taste of these long-term stresses when they participated in the Mir-shuttle program, a series of seven missions in which they spent three to six months working with cosmonauts on the Russian space station Mir. NASA used these missions as a bridge to its own future outpost in the sky—the International Space Station. The agency learned efficient ways to deliver supplies and how to train crew members to handle emergencies. But most importantly, from the lengthy missions, collectively known as Phase One of the ISS Program, NASA realized it had underestimated the emotional and social problems that people living in spacecraft for extended periods can experience. John Blaha, for example, suffered deep depression during his first month on Mir. He missed his wife, he felt like a stranger to his crewmates, and he was unhappy that he couldn’t vote in the 1996 U.S. presidential election. Jerry Linenger, who followed Blaha, felt profoundly isolated on the station, despite his experiences in the Navy on guided-missile destroyers, submarines, and even a virtually deserted island. Linenger often was at odds with ground controllers, who thought him moody.

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