Right and Wrong Stuff

Psychological Factors in Space Flight by Nick Wood © Nick Wood 2008. All Rights Reserved.

Like so many excited children my age, I watched the Apollo 11 moon-landings live, on a fuzzy black and white TV. There was a surreal edge to my experience, watching this from only 12 degrees south of the Equator, in northern Zambia, Africa. I wondered what it would be like to be up there and what sort of people were these super-human astronauts?

The 'space age' stumbled during the 1970s and 1980s, under the impact of Cold-War politics, public disinterest, and slashed budgets. However, in 2004 President George W. Bush unveiled an initiative to 'return to the Moon' in order to utilise potential resources there as well as to develop a base that may support the drive for human exploration beyond, such as a manned mission to Mars.i

So it seems that a political will has returned, as well as a gathering public interest, which has been fuelled by promised monetary backing. The spirit of this new venture has been touted as focusing on the potentials of international co-operation rather than the Cold-War competition that drove the Apollo Moon missions. At the end of the Moon race in the early 1970s, the US and Russian programs took separate paths. After the U.S. Skylab mission, the U.S. awaited the shuttle, which was delayed until 1981. The Russians moved into a series of space station missions - Salyut then Mir. This meant that they encountered the problems of long distance space missions, with prolonged orbital missions – upwards of six months duration – which partly accounts for their early interest in spaceflight psychology. For the U.S., such missions were hypothetical until astronauts joined cosmonauts on Mir. Some astronauts returned reporting problems such as loneliness, mild depression, and cross-cultural conflicts. This stimulated American interest in psychosocial adaptation and behavioral health in the U.S. space program. ii

In 2003, NASA sponsored a conference on Behavioral Health at the University of California. The intent was to revitalize research on psychosocial adaptation and performance, and to bring researchers and operational personnel closer together. NASA have subsequently announced they are looking for 'the class of 2009', who one day may partake in crewed lunar missions planned for 2019. iii The European Space Agency (ESA) has similarly issued a call for astronaut applicants.iv

Given the resurgent interest in space flight psychology and with anticipated long-term missions, questions arise as to (1) have psychological selection criteria changed over time and (2) what sorts of people might these selected astronauts be?

  1. The history of psychological assessments of astronauts:

    The 'Original Seven' selected for the Mercury programmes in the 1960's were no doubt 'The Right Stuff' as Tom Wolfe (1980) referred to them - cool, tough and resourceful ex-military pilots; akin to 'single combat warriors' from an earlier era. The selection team deliberately chose military test pilots as probably having the closest match to the skills and medical standards needed for pioneer flights.

    Applicants underwent psychiatric interviews as well as undergoing psychological evaluations and cognitive tests in order to 'select in' for positive factors such as intellect and personality. The 'next generation' of astronauts selected by NASA, for the Gemini and then the Apollo moon landing programmes, were also mainly from military backgrounds. In contrast to Mercury's 30 hours of psychological evaluation, though, the Gemini and Apollo programmes only required 10 hours.v

    In 1960, NASA had begun a research program to determine if women could qualify as astronauts. Twenty-five female pilots passed the Mercury Program tests, with 13 going on to be 'unofficially' trained: see 'Women Who Led the Way' in Escape Velocity 3. By 1965 NASA was beginning to feel public pressure from critics that no women had so far been officially selected. They opened the selection criteria to include 'scientist astronauts' – but out of 1500 candidates, only six were selected for the June 1965 group - all males. However, it was only with the Shuttle Program in the nineteen seventies that NASA firmly encouraged the application of women. In January 1978, the first women as well as black and other ethnic minority candidates were selected.

    The trend of decreasing psychological involvement in selection continued. By 1983 only active 'screening out' of psychopathology was being done. In 1989, the NASA Life Sciences Directorate began negotiations for a seat on the Russian space station Mir. This offered the opportunity for longer flights than any prior U.S. space program. In the 1990s the NASA/Mir missions became a reality providing the first phase of the International Space Station (ISS). As Moon and Mars missions are considered, so the emphasis may move in terms of who constitutes an 'ideal' astronaut. The focus on social compatibility was less evident for solo Mercury missions when the idea of the resilient, loner 'Space Cowboy' was born. However, with longer-term flights allied with increased crew numbers, we need to know what psychological characteristics are optimal for well-functioning astronauts.

  2. What makes for a current 'ideal' astronaut?

    The importance of ensuring adequate psychological screening was highlighted by the case of Lisa Nowak, a NASA astronaut who was arrested in February 2007, accused of attempted kidnapping after being embroiled in a love triangle with two other astronauts, the 'other woman' being a captain in the U.S. Air Force. What would happen if this had occurred on the International Space Station? NASA Administrator Mike Griffin organised a Health Care Review Committee to report on selection procedure. The Committee rejected additional reports of problematic behaviour amongst astronauts, which included alleged drinking close to flights, but Griffin concluded 'They're not perfect and neither am I'' (Spall, 2008, p. 72).

    So it seems astronauts are indeed very human - and selection, training and support are geared towards maximal functioning and efficiency, in lieu of perfection. Initial selection remains geared towards ensuring people with significant prior psychological problems are screened out, although it is hard to control for the possible development of later onset mental health difficulties. There is a feeling in the space community that there is a need to invest more in an astronaut's mental well-being. Human factors have traditionally been under-resourced in NASA research and mission considerations, vi

    but now there appears to be a growing awareness of the importance of getting this right for the success of long-term missions. vii

    Polar stations have been used as analogues for long-term isolated and dangerous working conditions akin to space settings; such as boredom and the strain of seeing the same people day after day. A three-year Mars mission with a crew of 6 is going to stretch team spirit to the limit. In Moscow next year (2009), 6 European Space Agency (ESA) volunteers will be locked up for 17 months to assess stability under isolated duress. viii

    In order to acclimatise astronauts to working within cramped, isolated and difficult environments, NASA has built an underwater laboratory known as Aquarius, located off the coast of Key Largo, Florida. Aquarius is too deep for people to be rescued quickly if something happens; and both confined and isolated ocean floor work entails dealing with partial gravity and a liquid lunar-similar landscape. Over 1 - 3 weeks, the astronaut's vigilance, attention, psychomotor speed and stress reactions are monitored and entered into a 'typically performing' database, which will be useful to identify atypical or deviant performances in space.ix

    So what are the ideal psychological attributes for an astronaut faced with the stress of longer-duration missions? Harrison (2001), who has written the seminal book Spacefaring in the area, suggests the required psychological attributes are: ability, motivation, (emotional) stability and social compatibility. Soviet space programmes have paid much attention to the interpersonal 'mix' of their cosmonaut teams - usually pairing 'dominant' and 'more submissive' cosmonauts on missions. This allowed for a natural and decisive chain of command and minimised the potential for disagreements in a military style hierarchical matching.

    As NASA has opened up its recruitment for civilian members, the military model may be less appropriate. The issue of social compatibility appears to be a characteristic needed for the success of long-term missions. With regard to fostering teamwork, the NSBRI psychologist, Dr. Judith Orasanu, and her colleagues, have been conducting studies at NASA-Ames. Individual personality profiles are taken and then teams subjected to problems that may occur in space, such as going out on repair missions with limited personnel and resources, or dealing with medical emergencies. Personality variables, stress responses, team interaction and mission performances are assessed, building models of successful crew performances.

    Findings so far suggest that mixed gender rather than single groups perform better, especially in competitive tasks. With regard to power and communication distributions within successful teams, Orasanu & Fischer (2005) has commented: "Everyone talked to everyone else; more positive affect and cohesion were expressed through a greater use of "we" than "I" and team members built on each others' ideas rather than directed others' behavior."

    High levels of anger and aggression are linked to worse team performances and high levels of positive emotion - e.g. joking and complimenting each other - tend to enhance team performance. Finally, the overall team composition is more important than individual characteristics. That is, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Yet some personality 'types' might be better suited to some positions than others - e.g. emerging group leaders tend to be more extroverted, less neurotic and more agreeable than their peers (DeAngelis, 2008a). Although clear leadership appears to play some role in task success, the leadership style seems to favour more supportive and almost 'democratic' approaches to task and team management, rather than dictatorial styles.

    If mixed gender teams are generally more effective overall, it still remains to be seen whether this effect perseveres over a longer period, such as during Mars missions. The issue of love and sex will eventually impact. To prevent another scenario such as that which occurred with Lisa Nowak, NASA must continue to prioritise research into optimising human factors in spaceflight.

    It "seems that many contemporary astronauts are now more open about their feelings than the early days of right-stuff bravado" (Spall, 2008 p.74). Mike Foale, after a 1995 spacewalk to repair the Hubble Space Telescope malfunction coupled joy with tears of relief at the end. As Spall puts it, "right stuff calmness with (expressed) human emotion makes for the perfect astronaut."

    So how do we best support and ensure emotional stability among the astronauts who are selected for long term spaceflight missions?

  3. Proposed ways of supporting astronauts on long-term missions:

    The Soviet space programme tried to analyse and respond to cosmonaut stress from voice data, however, this has been an unreliable procedure. Dr David Dinges from the University of Pennsylvania, a member university of NASA's National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI), has developed a brief self-assessment tool called the 'Psycho-motor Vigilance Test' (PVT); which utilises an optical computer recognition scanner that tracks facial expressions to assess mood, including anxiety and depression. An online computerised treatment package - e.g. based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) principles, can be prescribed as assessed from the monitoring assessment data (DeAngelis, 2008a). This develops the notion of 'silicon psychiatrists' - i.e. on board computers assessing and treating an astronaut's performance in flight; i.e. monitoring their attention, psycho-motor performance, mood and stress levels.

    Sipes and Vander Ark (2005) state that a number of other Russian psychological supportive measures for cosmonauts have been useful to adopt for American astronauts on the ISS - these include regular family contact and communication via private video family conferences setup in the family home. Further spontaneous contact opportunities are via e-mail and Internet Protocol Phone - although incoming calls are regulated to ensure they are not overloaded. Each crew member also receives 5 kilograms of individualised 'crew care packages' from relatives and friends via visiting Shuttle and Progress supply vehicles.

    These will become harder to ensure with a Mars mission, and radio lag-time with increasing distance will make communications user-unfriendly. The 'NASA Bioastronautics Critical Path Roadmap' researches ways to maximise human performance and reduce the risks associated with human factors in space-flight.x

    It's been over thirty-five years since Apollo 17 and the last of the 'Moon Walkers'. I think that's time enough for a return to the Moon and beyond. I hope one day to look up again and know that there are people walking around on its surface. As we have seen, not super-human beings or 'perfect people', but 'normal' people, albeit with good to exceptional abilities and pro-social behavior; maybe even someone reading this article will become one.

Questions to Prof. Al Harrison, author of Spacefaring: The Human Dimension.

Question 1:

Apollo 11 astronaut, Buzz Aldrin, said: "I don't think anybody - astronauts or otherwise - are born with some kind of right stuff. It's something you work into." Do you agree? To some extent it goes against 'common sense' experience, i.e. that some people seem to be natural go-getters, heroes and capable - extrovert maybe.

Actually, I do not agree with this. Over the past half century it has become more evident that there is a strong genetic component to human behavior. Heredity gives us potentials which can be neglected or fostered by our experiences. Training can help people develop the strengths that would be useful for space-faring. But in my opinion, not everyone - and I include myself here - has the potential to become an astronaut. "Right stuff" astronauts are born with great potential which is then developed over time, in the early years in military training as well as the superb training and conditioning provided by NASA.

Question 2:

The notion that team work is a more important trait than individual skill is contrary to the view we perceive from many Science fiction books and films where the day is often saved by an individual. Comment?

What you really want are people who perform well as individuals but who can also work effectively as part of a team. A lone hero makes for a great science fiction story. And certainly at some points it may take individual initiative and heroic action to keep everyone alive or complete a mission. But on the whole you want everyone working along side by side, doing what they know best, and what they each need to do, to achieve success. Don't think in terms of fighter pilots; think in terms of a crew of a multi-engine airplane.

Question 3:

Would you agree with the cut-off date of 37 years? In many ways doesn't this seem too old?

Although astronauts need to be in good physical condition they do not have to be competitive athletes. In fact, because of microgravity, space is not an ideal location for people who want to maintain superb conditioning. If physical fitness were an overriding requirement, we might expect space agencies to recruit 18 - 20 year olds, as do armies. But they are also looking for academic credentials, experience and evidence of a distinguished career, maturity, and so forth. This takes time to develop. I am not sure about the cosmonauts, and I am not sure about exact ages, but you might want to look up details on John Young, Storey Musgrave, and of course John Glenn completed a shuttle flight I think in his seventies.

Question 4:

What do you think are the most important human factors to consider in supporting long-term space missions?

We have to move beyond minimalist thinking and design human centred spacecraft that accommodate the needs of their human users. We need to accommodate diversity - gender, culture, occupation and so forth. We need to empower the astronauts - give them greater autonomy and more control over their schedules and activities. There has been progress on all three fronts in the modern space station (ISS) era.

With thanks to Prof. Al Harrison of the University of California, Davis.

© Nick Wood 2008. All Rights Reserved.



DeAngelis, T. (2008a). "Deep space psych." Monitor on Psychology, 39(3): 26-28.

DeAngelis, T. (2008b). "NASA budget leaves human factors in the cold." Monitor on Psychology, 39(3): 35.

Harrison, A. A. (2001). Spacefaring: The Human Dimension. Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press

Orasanu, J. & Fischer, U. (2005) Enhancing Team Performance for Exploration Missions. http://www.dsls.usra.edu/meetings/bio2005/pdf/BHPPosters/2087Orasanu.pdf

Santy, P.A. (1994) Choosing the Right Stuff: the psychological selection of astronauts and cosmonauts. Westport CT: Praeger.

Sipes, W. E. & Vander Ark., S.T. (2005). "Operational behavioral health and performance resource for international space station crews and families." Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine, 76(6, Section II): b36-b41.

Spall, N. (2008). "The wrong stuff: What happens when astronauts go bad?" Focus, 187: 70-74.

Wolfe, T. (1980). The Right Stuff. New York, Bantam Books.


Endnotes as marked in the text

i Back  http://edition.cnn.com/2004/TECH/space/01/14/bush.space/

ii Back Evidence of this renewed interest is found in the development of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (N.S.B.R.I.), based at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston (Fiedler & Carpenter, 2005). http://www.nsbri.org/

iii Back   (Spall, 2008, p.70).

iv Back   http://www.space.com/missionlaunches/080416-esa-astronauts.html

v Back  Extensively documented by Dr Patricia Santy, a psychiatrist and flight surgeon at NASA Johnson Space Centre from 1984 to 1991 (Santy,1994)

vi Back   (Harrison, 2001)

vii Back   (DeAngelis, 2008b)

viii Back   http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/6221424.stm

ix Back  http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/NEEMO/index.html

x Back  http://bioastroroadmap.nasa.gov/index.jsp