Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mir Is Perfect Lab for Space Stress Study

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- Six months of Mir crises -- fire, collision, decompression, contamination, blackout, illness -- may be anathema to U.S. and Russian space officials. But it's a windfall for a psychiatrist conducting the first-ever mood survey of space station crews and flight controllers.


"It certainly adds variety into what we're looking at," says Dr. Nick Kanas, professor of psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco and assistant chief of mental health services at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center.


He's looking at space-related stress. And he's found plenty.


Russia's space station Mir has staggered from one near-disaster to another since a February fire, the worst fire ever in space.


The worst wreck ever in space -- a collision between Mir and an unmanned cargo ship -- ruptured the station and reduced it to half-power in June. And just last week, Mir's main computer crashed and the power went out -- again.


"Boy, talk about stress cases," says David Leestma, a former astronaut who now is NASA's director of flight crew operations.


Incredibly, hectic missions like these may be less stressful for some of the higher-energy astronauts and cosmonauts than months of quiet monotony, Kanas says. He aims to find out.


"Remember, a lot of these people thrive on activity," Kanas says. "A lot of the pilots, especially, have been test pilots and they by nature and by training are used to high-stress situations and know how to cope with them and do very well with them."


Kanas hopes that his NASA-funded study will help the space agency choose and better train the best crews for the future international space station and possible expeditions to Mars, and the best ground control teams to guide them.


"When you start getting into something like a trip to Mars or even going back to the moon for an extended period of time, it's something that you can't neglect to certainly have thought through," Leestma says.


Kanas is examining not only the emotional lows and highs of Mir's U.S. and Russian crews, based on their own assessments, but also how their moods affect their work and their interaction with one another and bosses on the ground.


"The space program, by and large, has been extremely successful in accomplishing its mission goals" despite occasional temper flare-ups over the years, Kanas says. "There have been all these anecdotal reports from space and on the ground, but no one's really studied it."


Kanas began collecting crew responses as part of his four-year, $500,000-plus study just as astronaut and former test pilot John Blaha arrived at Mir in September 1996. Blaha's original Russian crew was pulled at the last minute for health reasons, and so he had to work and live with two cosmonauts he barely knew.


It was a quiet, uneventful mission. He missed his wife terribly and, for a while, was depressed.


One month after NASA astronaut Jerry Linenger replaced Blaha on Mir, an oxygen-generating can ignited and spewed flames and chunks of molten metal toward the cluttered, flammable walls. The crew almost had to abandon ship.


It's been a rocky ride ever since, with many of the emotions documented in Kanas' weekly questionnaires.


Unlike most U.S. researchers with experiments on Mir, Kanas' work wasn't halted by the June 25 collision, which cut off access to one of the newer lab modules. Because of earlier computer breakdowns, Kanas made sure his software program was installed in computers throughout the station. Questionnaires also were shipped up -- just in case.


So far, Kanas has gotten complete responses from Blaha and Linenger as well as two Russian cosmonauts.


Also contributing to Kanas' survey: 14 Russians and 31 Americans who have worked at Russia's mission control outside Moscow.


Kanas has yet to receive responses from Mir's current U.S. occupant, Michael Foale, and his past and present Russian colleagues -- some of that information was trapped in the ruptured, sealed-off lab module.


Recently returned cosmonauts Vasily Tsibliyev and Alexander Lazutkin, for example, endured the fire, the collision and everything in between. Things got so bad that Tsibliyev suffered heart palpitations and consequently was barred from spacewalking near the end of his six-month stint.


Kanas says he and his Russian collaborators have "bent over backward" to keep all the responses confidential. No names are on the questionnaires -- just self-assigned three-digit codes.


////BLOB////A spacewalk to find holes in the damaged Russian space station tentatively has been set for Saturday and the crew is checking spacesuits and making other preparations, officials said Monday.


Russian mission control spokesman Valery Lyndin said a final decision on the date of the spacewalk would be made after exercises Tuesday with the spacesuits.


U.S. astronaut Michael Foale and Russian commander Anatoly Solovyov are to inspect the outside of Mir's Spektr module, damaged in a crash with a cargo spaceship in June. Several spacewalks may be needed to repair the damage.