Science/Medicine : Cooped Up : Scientists are growing concerned that the confinement, monotony and prolonged close contact in space can diminish productivity and even lead to psychotic behavior endangering others.

Times Science Writer

Midway through an 84-day Skylab mission in 1974, the three resident astronauts shocked ground controllers by deciding to take a Sunday off from scheduled work.

Their unexpected rebellion led to what crew leader Gerald Carr called “the first space sensitivity session” with ground controllers.

In December, 1982, Soviet cosmonauts Anatoli Berezevoi and Valentin Lebedev risked a hazardous night landing during a snowstorm rather than extend their 211-day mission another week. In a rare display of candor, Soviet authorities said the landing was prompted by the cosmonauts’ growing irritability and inability to get along.


Those incidents, and others, worry NASA planners as they contemplate 120- to 180-day stays in this country’s proposed space station during the 1990s and a three-year, round trip to Mars early in the next century.

Psychologists are growing more concerned that the confinement, monotony and prolonged close contact with other crew members will reduce astronaut efficiency and productivity. Such conditions might even lead to psychotic behavior that could endanger the crew or its mission.

“My worst fear is that an astronaut on the way to Mars will suffer a nervous breakdown that will be televised live around the world,” said Charles Stovitz, National Aeronautics and Space Administration consultant.

To learn more about what a trip to Mars might be like (and how to select and train astronauts for such missions), NASA psychologists are turning to what many consider the closest earthly analog of a spaceship: the Antarctic camps where small groups of men--and an occasional woman--spend seven to nine months shut off from the rest of humanity by the fierce austral winter.

Trapped by blinding blizzards and temperatures that often reach 100 degrees below zero, scientists and support crews who winter there are as isolated as Mars astronauts would be--perhaps even more so, because the bad weather prevents the continuous communications Americans have grown used to on space missions.

And what the psychologists are finding out about these hardy adventurers is not very reassuring.


Most of the crew endure the winter successfully, but isolation and monotony in the confined outposts take a big toll. Productivity drops, anxiety and hostility soar, risk-taking and rule-breaking escalate, and bizarre and eccentric behavior become more common during the long winter darkness.

At least one murder has occurred in the Antarctic, American experts believe. A Russian scientist is said to have axed a colleague who beat him in a chess game.

Fistfights are not uncommon, and one Australian cook chased a diesel mechanic with a meat cleaver for three hours before both got tired, got drunk and got reconciled. Another Australian crew built stocks outside, locked an unpopular mate in them for four hours and showered him with garbage.

Accidental deaths also occur, some the result of ennui-bred adventurism. Three British scientists died in 1982 when they fell into a crevasse while exploring the forbidden sea ice. Others have been killed or severely injured in accidents that occurred when the monotonous routine caused their attention to wander.

NASA and National Science Foundation scientists met in August in Sunnyvale, Calif., to review what is known about the psychological difficulties of living in Antarctica and to plan future research.

Scientists have spent winters in Antarctica sporadically since 1899, but American bases have been maintained continuously only since the International Geophysical Year in 1957-58. Now, 17 American men and women are at the South Pole, seven at Palmer Station on the Palmer Peninsula, and 188 at the main base, McMurdo Station.


In all, about 800 men and women from 11 other countries occupy 20 bases scattered around the periphery of the huge continent, which is bigger than the U.S. and Europe combined. With only one or two exceptions, the residents of these bases are physically cut off from each other during the winter by distances and the Antarctic weather.

The stations support scientific research, including meteorology, oceanography and marine biology, and scientists are the key staff. Civilian and military crews cook, maintain the generators that provide electricity and the desalinators and heat exchangers that purify sea water or melt snow, and generally keep the bases running.

Once the last flight of the summer has left in mid-February, people quickly fall into a mind-numbing routine, said Patrick E. Cornelius, an astronautical engineer for Boeing Aerospace Corp. who has wintered in Antarctica twice as part of the support crew. Their only escapes, he said, are conversation, listening to music, short excursions outside and watching movies.

“We would use any excuse for a party--sunset, midwinter, holidays, anything,” Cornelius recalled. “We would get drunk and act silly to relieve the tension and stress.”

As a result, alcoholism is a problem, particularly at the Soviet camps, experts said. Abuse of other drugs is less common but still occurs. Some grow marijuana under artificial lights. One recent drug sweep at the South Pole station netted seven pounds of marijuana seeds.

Risk-taking becomes more common as boredom increases, Cornelius said. A favorite pastime is visiting the abandoned South Pole base built in the 1950s. The base is off-limits because it is buried deeply under snow and is in imminent danger of collapse, but people tunnel down into it anyway.


The camp commanders have limited control, Cornelius added, because there are few ways to enforce the rules.

By midwinter, many develop “big eye,” a wide-eyed stare that is caused by boredom and by constantly focusing on nearby objects, said psychologist Arreed Barabasz of Washington State University. He has studied men who wintered at New Zealand’s Scott Base about five miles from McMurdo. The men also reported that they would frequently wake from a trance-like state with spoons raised halfway to their mouths, or find themselves at their work stations with no memory of how they had gotten there.

Productivity drops sharply as the winter lengthens, said anthropologist Jeanne Williams of the University of Texas, who wintered there as a satellite ground-station technician with her husband. “There’s a major misconception that the isolation is a perfect opportunity to get a great deal done,” she said, “but it doesn’t work that way. Your attention span shrinks, and you jump quickly from one job to another or concentrate on minutiae, but you don’t get a lot of real work done.”

Most people tend to retreat within themselves, said psychologist Sybil Carrere of the University of California, Irvine. She wintered at Palmer Station as a diver, along with her husband. In her free time, she conducted psychological and physiological studies on nine of the 12 men there.

She found that the men spent 60% of their waking hours alone. A third of that solitary time was spent in their bedrooms with the doors closed.

Many people remained isolated, even when others were around. They “cocoon,” Clearwater said, reading, listening to music, or simply sitting in the presence of others, but not interacting with them. “They want to make sure they are not being talked about behind their back.”


Many psychologists believe that the problems may be worse in space. While the Antarctic crew members have individual quarters the size of a college dormitory room, astronauts on the space station or on a Mars trip will have about the same private living space that they would have in a telephone booth.

Their diet will be much less varied, noise from cabin fans and other equipment will be incessant, they will have fewer personal effects for entertainment, and they won’t be able to go outside for exercise. On top of that, they will have to deal with the physiological effects of weightlessness, which cause muscles to weaken and bones to lose mass.

Drawing from the Antarctic experience, NASA psychologists are searching for physical and psychological ways to minimize stress.

One obvious conclusion, Clearwater said, is that the astronauts need some private place to which they can retreat, such as a sleeping area that space station designers are planning. The Soviet Salyut did not have bedrooms, and cosmonauts would retreat to the attached Soyuz capsule, seal the door and gaze out the windows.

The Soviets have included individual living spaces in the Mir space station, which is about the size of a house trailer. They have also tried to provide more visual stimulation, switching from the once-favored pastels to bold primary colors and allowing cosmonauts to design their own uniforms.

Even this is often not enough. At the end of July, 35-year-old cosmonaut Alexander Laveikin was returned to Earth from the space station Mir nearly six months into a 270-day mission. Laveikin’s heart had begun beating abnormally, a condition frequently brought on by excessive stress, and American scientists speculate that he simply did not adapt well to the confined conditions.


More thought must also be given to the astronauts’ backgrounds, said physicist David Honea of the University of Texas. Experience in Antarctica has shown that individuals who grew up in the relative peace of small towns adapt to the conditions much better than those who are used to coping with the hectic life of a big city.

“If you love New York City, you are not going to like McMurdo,” and probably not a spaceship, he said. “Adventure-seekers will apply, but they will get bored very quickly.”

Living with a small group of people in space is “like having house guests who have overstayed their welcome,” said NASA sociologist B. J. Bluth. “And if the chemistry (among the crew) doesn’t work, you’ve got a lot of trouble.”

Aboard the Salyut 6 in 1980, for example, cosmonaut Valeri Ryumin and crew mate Leonid Popov “had a tough time,” Bluth said. “They yelled at each other, yelled at the ground controllers, slept for 12-hour periods” rather than the normal eight and accomplished little.

New techniques have since been adopted to better ensure compatibility. “The Soviets take three or four potential cosmonauts, give them the keys to a small car and order them to take a three-week vacation in Siberia,” said Clearwater. “If they can’t get along there, they are not going to get along in space.”

While an enforced vacation may not be the best screening tool, she added, it might be useful to send potential crews on some type of high-risk adventure like the Outward Bound program, where cooperation and resourcefulness are emphasized. Some experts even suggest that Mars crews should winter in Antarctica as a form of training and selection.


Ex-astronaut Joseph Kerwin disagrees with that approach. He quotes former Houston Oiler professional football coach Bum Phillips, who was asked why his team didn’t practice in the frigid Wisconsin winter before a loss to Green Bay. Said Phillips: “You can’t practice being miserable.”

Once cosmonauts have been selected and launched into space, the Soviet Psychological Support Group also closely monitors them. During the 25-minute portion of each 90-minute orbit that the space station is in contact with ground receivers, psychologists analyze the cosmonauts’ facial expressions and voices and watch their behavior for telltale signs of stress or other problems.

If a problem is detected, a psychologist immediately conducts a sort of therapy session. Ground controllers also routinely beam special performances of plays, musical events and dances to the cosmonauts to break the routine, and gifts and letters arrive on the unmanned Progress ships that resupply the station.

NASA has no comparable support group and, NASA psychologists say, no intention of creating one. That’s fine with the astronauts, who go out of their way to avoid interaction with psychologists, ex-astronaut Kerwin said. “He’s the one who can ground you,” he said.

In fact, psychologists have yet to ground an active astronaut, although prospective astronauts have been eliminated for psychological reasons.

And on a trip to Mars, a psychologist might not be able to do much good anyway because the tremendous distances impair communications. Psychologist Albert A. Harrison of UC Davis said, “You can’t do much analysis with a 20-minute time lag.”


How Much Room Is There?

With the exception of the U.S. Skylab, which was constructed from the upper stage of a Saturn IVB rocket, space vehicles have had very little room for living and working. For comparison, a telephone booth has about 63 cubic feet of space.

Mercury (U.S.) 55 Capacity: 1 cubic feet Gemini (U.S.) 80 Capacity: 2 cubic feet Apollo (U.S.) 210 Capacity: 3 cubic feet Skylab (U.S.) 10,462 Capacity: 3 cubic feet Shuttle Orbitor (U.S.) 2,525 Capacity: 7 cubic feet Salyut & Mir (U.S.S.R.) 3,500 Capacity: 5 cubic feet

Source: NASA