I went for a stroll the other day with my iPod set to shuffle. The first track that came on was one I haven’t heard in ages, one of my dad’s old favourites - John Denver’s 1970s hit, “Rocky Mountain High”.
Goodness knows how something so nostalgic made its way into my collection of bleeding-edge rock and pop. I’m certainly not admitting to having bought it online.
Anyway, as I listened to him sing about watching it “raining fire in the sky”, I was reminded of what a space buff Denver was. Not only did he take and pass Nasa’s examination to determine mental and physical fitness for space travel, he also asked the Soviet authorities to allow him to be launched into space.
Denver died in 1997 while piloting his light aircraft over the California coast, so his dream never came to fruition. But it seems fairly certain that more and more ordinary people are going to get that opportunity in years to come.
Whether or not the experience will live up to the romance of the idea remains to be seen. Certainly a lecture delivered at University College London this month made me wonder. The talk was given by Professor Jim Kass, of the European Space Agency, and its tenor was clear from the title: “In space everybody can hear you scream.”
Kass pointed out the enormous pressures faced by astronauts, who have to find ways of living and working in close quarters for long periods with no escape from their crewmates. Anyone who has been on a camping holiday in the rain will have a sense of what that must be like.
Astronauts are also separated from family and friends, and have to cope with restricted sensory stimulation and sleep disturbances, all which can have further negative impacts on their emotional state.
The results of this can be worrying, Kass told me on the phone after his talk. “I’ve heard of crew members hitting each other, and trying to escape from the hatch,” he said. “There have also been crew members brought back early. The trouble is that one tends not to know too much about what has happened, because it isn’t discussed.”
Given all this, it isn’t surprising that space agencies have started to take the psychological testing of astronauts seriously. But less attention is given to the way the individual men and women will work together, Kass says.
“The crew compatibility issues are very important - but very little is done in the way of compatibility,” he says. “With all the other considerations, you rarely have the luxury of putting a crew together so they get along.”
In an ideal world, astronauts would be given some psychological training to help their social skills and stress management, he says. “You could make each of them into group psychologists, to help them learn to cope with each other and work together as a team.”
The fact that this isn’t done surely causes problems now, he says, and most definitely will on any future trips to Mars - which could take nearly a year. “You can grit your teeth for a few months, but not for the length of a Mars mission.”
Still, astronaut psychology is getting more attention than it has in the past. For a long time, Nasa in particular didn’t give a damn about the state of mind of their crews - more important were their piloting and research skills. “It was really when the first joint Russian-American missions to the Mir space station began that they realised there were problems,” Kass said.
These days, psychologists listen in on most of the communications astronauts have with those on the ground in order to detect worrying signs such as depression or frustration, Kass says. Even a confidential call to mission control could have a few listeners.
One man who has probably thought quite a lot about these issues is Thomas Reiter, a German astronaut who is due to begin a six-month stint on the International Space Station (ISS).
Reiter will be taken to the ISS on the next Space Shuttle mission, which could be blasting off as soon as next month. He will be the first non-American or Russian astronaut to become a member of an ISS expedition crew, and will work alongside two crew mates.
Reiter is married, with two sons. He apparently enjoys fencing, badminton, cooking and playing the guitar, none of which he’ll be able to do for some time. At least he knows what he’s letting himself in for, since he has already had experience of a long stint in space. In 1995, he was part of a record-breaking 179-day mission to the old Mir space station, with two Russian colleagues.
That experience was a good one, Reiter said in a recent interview: “I have to honestly say that I expected some ups and downs from time to time as happens in the best marriages... but I must say that absolutely nothing has happened.”
No doubt his crew-mates on the ISS will be glad to hear they’ve got such a philosophical chap on board with them. How they would react if he turns out to be a John Denver fan is anyone’s guess.