It Came From Inner Space

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.

Link to AJP ‘Symposium of Space Psychiatry’ (sadly, closed access).
Link to USA Today article on astronaut selection.
Link to Wired article on hopes for gay astronauts.

5 Comments

  1. Posted February 7, 2008 at 12:17 am | Permalink

    Yay Stanislaw Lem, one of my favorite authors. Interesting to relate this to his “Solaris” novel. The protagonist in his novel “Memoirs Found in a Bathtub” is also one struggling with isolation. However, it is an isolation caused by paranoia and bureaucracy (I swear Brazil is influenced by this novel).

  2. Alex Robinson
    Posted February 7, 2008 at 1:03 am | Permalink

    Er, that’s Lem, not Lev, Vaughan.
    That aside, I think it’s quite possible that Lem was informed by those very articles.
    Lem worked as a researcher on a Polish journal where his job was essentially to precis Western journals. He kept this reading up even after he became a full time novelist. In fact, it’s staggering how many of his stories both subtly and profoundly expound scientific positions that had just been formulated and not yet popularised, from cosmology to evolutionary biology to artificial intelligence to, well, you get the idea.
    Of course, he also had a phenomenally creative imagination, so it’s also possible that he just worked it out himself…

  3. Posted February 7, 2008 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    Hi Alex,
    Thanks for the correction (now fixed in the post!) and thanks for the interesting bit about Lem’s work.

  4. Jef Free
    Posted February 11, 2008 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    I grew up around astronauts, I know about the “problems” they have after returning from space. My Dad worked for NASA and I did some work as well.Here is the problem. The psychological testing seeks in the applicants a strong ego sense, a strong sense of self. Sadly this is the opposite of what is required. Human beings understanding and definition of reality is based upon where they exist, and are born in a web of energy. Their ego’s perception and understanding is based upon where they are physically located in that web. The reason people who travel great distances in their lives tend to be more worldly is not just because they encountered more diversity but it is actually that the mere physical movement and displacement from their place of birth expands their ego’s definition. However when an ego is removed to such a great distance as outer space, and also depending on the time element, the ego’s point of reference is tenous. Deep space travel is impossible for humans because put simply they would simply “lose their minds”. To be capable of space travel without the jeopardy the ego has to take a back seat, which is impossible for 99.9% of humans. Fears of agression from folks from outer space is un-warranted as agression is an aspect of ego and as noted the ego can’t make the trip. If NASA wants to consider deep space or prolonged space travel it will be necessary to find applicants who can disconnect from their “ego description” of the world. Everyone has a different perception of reality based upon their vantage point. When one is moved so far from a vantage point they understand, their perception makes no sense. Our vantage point is dictated by our position in the web. Unless one can disconnect from their ego’s connection with their vantage point, deep space travel can only result in 2 things, first “insanity”, then possibly enlightenment.

  5. Posted February 12, 2008 at 2:29 am | Permalink

    This whole post reminded me of the so-called “overview effect.”

    http://www.livescience.com/blogs/2007/07/19/overview-effect-goes-viral/


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