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WORLD FOCUS: Space missions, life in isolation

January 23, 2014
By FRANK SHATZ , Lake Placid News

The Discovery Channel, in a news release, urged viewers to realize that although space travel looks easy on TV and in movies, in reality it causes both short-term and long-term problems for a spacecraft's most delicate cargo: its crew.

This predicament was a concern to NASA from the beginning of the space age. As plans were being formulated to extend the human presence into space, there was a need to better understand and respond to biomedical and psychological challenges facing humans in space on a long-term basis.

One of those who was assigned the task to investigate the psychological effects of long-duration space missions and stress amelioration techniques was Arlene Levine, of Williamsburg. As early as 1984, in a scholarly paper that was later published in a volume titled, "From Antarctica to Outer Space: Life in Isolation and Confinement," she assembled a comprehensive data-base for what the extension of human presence into space on a long-term basis would require.

Article Photos

Arlene Levine (Photo provided)

"Only very recently have mission planners come to the realization that it will depend on more than engineering, technology and hardware. While past research and interest in the United States has centered on the medical aspects of human spaceflight, little concern has centered on the psychological and behavioral health of the astronaut," she wrote.

Levine's investigation yielded a cornucopia of vital data. At that time, the Soviet cosmonauts have logged 12 man years in space as compared to the United States with less than five. With their increased experience came the recognition that extreme factors of spaceflight and existence in space can cause considerable psychological stress.

Isolation can be a significant source of stress during long-duration missions. She quotes a study that shows that isolation during spaceflight is an estrangement from all that is familiar. It means a separation from friends, family and society at large, resulting in loss of assurance, affection, respect and the variety of relationships and roles that one has on Earth. Confinement with a limited number of individuals adds to the pressures of isolation. Space missions may be analogous to situations at Antarctic camps and submarines.

"There is a feeling of no escape from the environment or companionship. The need for privacy will increase with the duration of the mission," she wrote.

There are also other factors, such as weightlessness and microgravity that have profound effects on the body and mind. Quoting Soviet studies, Levine pointed out that after four to five months in space, work performance may decline as a result of the degradation of perception, motor skills, reflexes and coordination.

Her study didn't just record the harmful effects that may result from long-duration space flights. She made available experts' recommendations to the solutions of potential problems. She noted that astronaut selection continued to exclude those individuals who are highly reactive to stress. Thus, personnel selection alleviated many potential problems. Experience, on the other hand, indicated that some environmental stressors can be lessened by increasing the private living space of an astronaut or cosmonaut.

Listing many training techniques that are effective in ameliorating stress that can affect and regulate a number of bodily functions and processes, including brain waves, heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension and a host of other conditions that are vital to functioning effectively in space, her paper was an important link in the process that will make space flights to Mars and beyond possible.

Levine retired from NASA with 27 years of service as coordinator of green activities at the Strategic Relationships Office, earning a mile-long list of awards.

But, in an interview with the Lake Placid News and the Virginia Gazette, she said, "What gave me the most satisfaction is the knowledge that my recommendations on long duration human space missions were distributed to astronauts and to the rest of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas."

Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from the Virginia Gazette.



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