How to Build a Better Space Explorer

Space Madness

In a classic episode of "Ren & Stimpy," Ren cracks up during a 36-year space mission, ultimately devouring a bar of soap he mistakes for a coveted ice cream bar. The cause? Too much eating food from a tube and too much time alone with the wrong traveling companion (not that Ren was very stable to begin with).

The exacting conditions of space travel inevitably produce stress. When combined with the nerve-fraying effects of myriad hindrances and trying circumstances, stress eventually leads to breakdown. After all, human beings evolved to tolerate stressful episodes, but only ones broken up by periods of rest and relaxation.

Space programs are understandably careful about divulging momentary lapses of reason, as are astronauts and cosmonauts, but memoirs and interviews reveal that they have occurred.

After six months in the Greyhound-bus-sized Mir space station in 1987, Aleksandr Laveykin returned to Earth early, later admitting to suffering acute depression and suicidal thoughts. His partner, Yury Romanenko, stayed behind but grew ever more testy and withdrawn. His crewmates took over communications with mission control [source: Roach].

Cosmonauts Boris Volynov and Vitali Zholobov returned early from Soviet space station Salyut 5 after a terrifying incident drove Zholobov to the verge of breakdown. On the 42nd day, while in the Earth's shadow, they lost all electricity. Imagine it: No lights; no pumps; no communications with ground; no sense of up or down; no way to see controls or switches; only as much oxygen as already filled the station. After an hour and a half, they managed to restore power, but the incident took its toll: Zholobov could no longer sleep. He complained of splitting headaches (possibly due to the air being contaminated). He had to come down [source: Roach].

Even ignoring the stress of environmental hostility or imminent catastrophe, living with frustration and without many options for emotional support or release cannot help but erode mental well-being. Many of us consider ourselves cool-headed, but how well would we do without our prized possessions, go-to entertainment or closest loved ones?

And then there's the elephant in the room: Libido. Let's face it: Motivated humans can stave off hormonal urges for a brief period, but not for years or a lifetime. Perhaps the time will come when we assume a less puritanical "position" on the subject. Some astronauts and cosmonauts advocate letting crews engage in nonmonogamous relationships and ... activities ... as a way to ease tensions (NASA discourages married couples on missions, both to prevent conflicts of interest and to avoid the possibility of inflicting a double loss on their children). The idea isn't without precedent: Many Antarctic researchers gain emotional support by forming season-long sexual relationships [source: Roach].

Sexy and single or chaste and content: Either way, if you're planning to join the mission, you'd better be good at making friends.

More to Explore