In light of the unusual behaviour displayed by some of NASA’s astronauts in recent times, the American space agency is aiming to use increased psychological screening for its potential space travellers.
They say there is nothing new orbiting the sun and, as testament to this, the exact same issue was discussed way back in 1959, in a special issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry on ‘space psychiatry’.
It’s a rather curious discussion to say the least, showing a mix of 1950s prejudice, naive awe, and some rather charming if not slightly potty Freudian analysis.
An article by A.J Silverman and colleagues discusses the possibilities of using psychological selection techniques for space crew and notes that it should exclude “the person with a history of constantly fighting and rebelling both against peers and authority figures, as well as those with pressing homosexual or other major neurotic conflicts.”
Silverman was writing at a time when homosexuality was still 15 years away from being de-listed as a mental illness but the issue of whether to send an openly gay person into space is still a hot topic. Apparently, Lance Bass, ex-‘N Sync singer and commercial astronaut, might be the first.
Despite a few throwaway comments, the authors of the ‘space psychiatry’ articles actually spend much more time discussing the terrors of outer space, and how they relate to the terrors of inner space, rather than how to screen crews.
Air Force Captain George Ruff notes two serious sources of space anxiety: one is “the possibility that equipment failure or operator error may cause death within a few seconds”. The other, is “the subject’s infantile fantasies” (Houston, we have an unresolved Oedipus complex).
In contrast, Eugene Brody sees ‘separation anxiety’ as the most likely source of psychological disturbance. This is what young children suffer when they are taken, even temporarily, from their mothers.
Brody thought this would be equally as stressful when astronauts were separated from ‘mother earth’ and suggested that the consequences could be dire:
These factors plus the sensory input patterns which may be encountered in space flight, and such apparently basic fears as that of impenetrable darkness might in theory at least be expected in time to produce-even in a well-selected and trained pilot-something akin to the panic of schizophrenia. The regressive defense may be revealed in symptom formations such as hallucinations or delusions…”
In other words, Brody is arguing that the existential loneliness of space may break down the usual defences of astronauts causing them to experience their innermost conflicts as delusions and hallucinations, imposed upon reality.
What’s remarkable, is this is strikingly similar to the main themes in Stanislaw Lem’s influential novel Solaris which was published in 1961, two years after the American Journal of Psychiatry special issue.
It’s interesting to speculate that Lem may have been inspired to explore these concepts after they were discussed by American psychiatrists and disseminated by starry-eyed futurists.