The rise and fall of ‘space madness’

‘Space madness’ was a serious concern for psychiatrists involved in the early space programme. A new article in history of science journal Endeavour tracks the interest in this ‘dreaded disease that never was.’

Much to the surprise of NASA mental health professionals, those who volunteered to be astronauts were neither “suicidal deviants” nor troubled by their separation from the earth, but the media ran with the ‘space travel as psychic trauma’ idea anyway.

‘In answer to the question, “‘What kind of people volunteer to be fired into orbit?” one might expect strong intimations of psychopathology’. Or so thought two Air Force psychiatrists selected to examine America’s first would-be astronauts. Researchers of the 1950s who considered the problem of human spaceflight often speculated that such work would attract only suicidal deviants, and that merely participating in such a voyage would overwhelm the human psyche of otherwise healthy people. The popular culture record of the time seemed to confirm their suspicions, with science fiction films frequently offering up megalomaniacs, egotists, and religious fanatics terrorizing planets in their cinematic space cruisers.

It is not surprising, then, that the psychiatrists working with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1959 feared the worst of the men selected to be America’s first astronauts: that they would be impulsive, suicidal, sexually aberrant thrill-seekers. The examiners, though, were surprised – and a little disappointed – when tests revealed the would-be spacemen to be sane, poised professionals able to absorb extraordinary stresses. Flying jet airplanes in Cold War America had conditioned the men to control their fear, and even the most spirited among them were effective in orbit.

The idea that humans could travel into space and not be traumatized by their experiences, though, was unpalatable to large numbers of journalists and screenwriters, who expected that such journeys would produce some form of psychic transformation. By the early-1970s, popular culture depicting unhinged astronauts became commonplace, even as NASA’s astronauts demonstrated a remarkable ability to absorb the stresses of long-duration spaceflight. A Space Age malady with no incidence among human populations, ‘space madness’ is the stuff of Hollywood: a cultural manifestation of popular fears of a lonely, dehumanizing, and claustrophobic future among the stars.

Unfortunately, the article is locked, because the likes of you and me would just make the place look scruffy, but we covered some of the early discussion on what might cause ‘space madness’ previously on Mind Hacks.

And if you’re interested in the modern astronaut psychology don’t miss a 2008 article from The Psychologist on how NASA select their space travelling colleagues.

I would also like to mention that if someone from NASA is reading that I am free at *any time* to start astronaut duties. I also already own a space pen and am fully competent in its use.

Link to locked article. Not very space age, is it?
Link to previous Mind Hacks piece on space madness.

7 thoughts on “The rise and fall of ‘space madness’”

  1. Ahhhh, this was a delightful read to break up the monotony of my Houston to Orlando drive to kidnap my ex-husband. Well, now that I’ve got a fresh diaper I’d better get back to it!

  2. Interesting. I didn’t know there had been worries about “space madness” but did assume that they used test pilots because they could tolerate such extraordinary stress.

    I know very well I would go mad if I were shot into orbit but then again, that’s why I never dreamed of being an astronaut as a child. (really, even just sitting in one of those capsules at the NASA museum gave me the creeps…not just space madness to worry about, but claustrophobia too!)

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