There’s a lot to love about Joss Whedon's one-season sci-fi wonder Firefly and the 2005 film Serenity, which turns 15 this week. The series introduced fans to beloved characters and a Western-styled galaxy of adventure, twists, and mysteries. One of the mysteries that Serenity ended up solving was the true nature of the Reavers — insane, cannibalistic space pirates who lurk at the edge of the galaxy.
Serenity reveals that Reavers are an unexpected side-effect of a calming cocktail given to the colonists of the planet Miranda, at the edge of the human-controlled system. While most became so sedated that they stopped eating and simply let themselves die, one in a thousand of them had the opposite adverse reaction, becoming extremely aggressive. This, the movie explains, are where Reavers come from, but it's a different answer than the show initially offered.
Prior to the side-effect revelation, Reavers were thought to be colonists who, confronted with the infinite abyss at the edge of the system, simply lost their minds. To quote the show, Reavers "got out to the edge of the galaxy, to that place of nothin', and that's what they became.”
In a way, that's a scarier prospect than Serenity's explanation. Can venturing deep into space cause madness? It's something that real-life space explorers are certainly taking precautions against...
THE ORIGIN OF SPACE MADNESS
Space Madness is a staple of genre fiction. The notion that humans might lose themselves in the vastness of the endless abyss, untethered from their home planet, makes for good story fodder. But, at the beginning of the space age, it was a legitimate concern. The idea was that the nature of space travel would be too much to handle. Being away from one’s family, from the comforts of home, would be an obstacle in the way of physical and mental health.
In addition, there was some concern about the types of people who would volunteer to venture off-world. Some believed that those interested in being astronauts in the first place must have some aberrant mental status. They must be thrill-seekers, impulsive, even suicidal. And whatever mental deficits drove them to become astronauts in the first place would only be exacerbated by the pressures of empty space.
These concerns weighed on the minds of space programs even when considering the first orbital flights, and the trek to the Moon. It turned out, however, that no such symptoms arose in those early astronauts. Instead, they remained calm and collected, performing under high pressure. They were qualified individuals carrying out a job and doing it well.
It’s clear at this point that simply leaving the planet is not a recipe for madness, but what of the years-long journey needed to get to the red planet and back? Such a mission would require years of separation from Earth, from friends and family, locked in a relatively small craft with a finite group of people without the ability to go outside, to feel the wind on your face, to do anything outside of the daily prescribed activities over and over again.
It’s not difficult to imagine how such a scenario might worsen any existing malady, or even create a mental break where one didn’t previously exist.
THE RIGHT BRAIN STUFF
Despite the horrors of space madness never actually manifesting, NASA and other space agencies go to great lengths to ensure the people they send into space are equipped to handle the challenges.
Being an astronaut has a few base pre-requisites. The minimum requirements for astronauts include: a bachelor’s degree in engineering, biological or physical science, computer science, or math, with an additional three years of experience in that field or 1,000 hours of flight time. Once that box is checked, if selected to progress in the astronaut pool, there are psychological checks. Both rounds involve a series of interviews to include time with a psychologist and field exercises.
Psychiatric disorders are disqualifying, but a number of other factors can also result in disqualification from the pool. In short, NASA is looking for anything in your life that might cause additional pressures during the mission. The specific measures used to identify qualified candidates and disqualify others are not disclosed, for security reasons. In short, though, they are looking for any risk factors that might impact the mission. Especially on long missions, any distraction — even personal ones like marital problems — is seen as a risk factor that could cause undue stress.
After narrowing down a pool of thousands of applicants to a few select astronauts to eliminate the earth-bound risk as well as is possible, NASA takes extra measures to ensure the mental well-being of its astronauts once off the ground.
Astronauts receive continuous ground-based care throughout the mission by clinical psychology and psychiatry staff on the ground. There are also Crew Care Packages sent during resupply missions, which provide space-based crews with a tether to home. Astronauts also celebrate traditional holidays while in space, whenever possible. Astronauts who stay in space for long periods of time on the International Space Station are able to partake in some of these comforting practices, but they wouldn't be able to during deep space missions — like those to Mars and beyond. And therein lies the true concern when it comes to mental health.
A crewed mission to Mars could take approximately two years, give or take, based on planetary orbits and the amount of time spent on the Martian surface.
To date, the record for the longest consecutive time an individual has spent in space belongs to cosmonaut Valery Polyakov, who spent 438 days aboard MIR in the mid-'90s. A decade later, astronaut Scott Kelly spent 340 days aboard the ISS, roughly half the time needed to get to Mars and back.
Duration isn’t the only consideration, though. The vast distances, the communication lag time (up to 40 minutes), extended exposure to radiation and low gravity, and disruption of sleep cycles could all have untold effects on travelers’ physical and mental well-being. NASA has carried out animal studies involving mice and found negative neurological impacts resulting in increased anxiety and decreased cognitive function.
The Mars500 project carried out by the Institute of Biomedical Problems of the Russian Academy held six male participants in isolation for 520 days, intending to mimic some of the characteristics of a crewed Mars mission. They found increased levels of depression and abnormal sleep patterns, which raised some concerns about a small crew traveling to and from Mars without the direct and immediate support of ground control.
While the initial worries about space madness seem to be an invention of popular culture, the road ahead does have specific concerns we have not, as yet, been able to prepare for. NASA and other space-based agencies are doing everything they can to eliminate risks and plan for contingencies, but we likely won’t know the full extent of long-range space travel until we’re already on the road.
The good news is, so far, humanity has been able to weather every horizon and there’s every indication we’ll overcome whatever obstacles come our way as we travel to the next world and beyond. Fingers crossed.