By Daniel Dunaief
More than four days after lift off, pioneering astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had landed in the Sea of Tranquility on the surface of the moon. The NASA schedule, which included preparing the vehicle for an emergency abort of the mission in the event of a problem, called for a nap of four hours. Once they were there, however, Armstrong and Aldrin couldn’t imagine taking a four-hour respite.
“Both Armstrong and Aldrin were, understandably, excited about where they were and decided to forgo the sleeping and changed history,” Thomas Williams, element scientist in Human Factors and Behavioral Performance at NASA, described in an email.
A future trip to Mars, however, would involve considerably longer delayed gratification, with the round trip estimated to take over 400 days. The stresses and strains, the anxiety about an uncertain future and the increasing distance from family and friends, not to mention the smell of cut grass and the appearance of holiday decorations, could weigh on even the most eager of astronauts.
Determined to prepare for contingencies, NASA is funding research to understand ways to combat the mental health strains that might affect future astronauts who dare to go further than anyone has ever gone.
‘Being in long-duration space missions with other people, we expect the mental health risk will be much more elevated’. — Adam Gonzalez
Gonzalez, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Stony Brook University, received over $1 million in funding from NASA to explore ways to help these future astronauts who might be anxious or depressed when they’re on the way to the red planet.
In a highly competitive process, Gonzalez received the financial support to provide guidance on what NASA considers a low-probability, high-consequence mental health event, according to Williams.
Gonzalez “was funded because of the soundness of his research proposal and the clinical and technological expertise of the research team he assembled to help NASA address this research gap,” Williams explained.
Gonzalez started providing three different types of psychological assistance to 135 people in the middle of September. He is testing ways to provide mental health assistance with a delay that could require over 40 minutes to travel back and forth.
One group of test subjects will use a system called myCompass, which is a mental health self-help program. Another group will use myCompass coupled with a delayed text messaging response from a therapist, and a third will have a myCompass system along with delayed video messaging from a therapist.
“Being in long-duration space missions with other people — in this case, months and potentially years — stuck in extremely close quarters with others, we expect the mental health risk will be much more elevated relative to what they are going to have on the International Space Station,” Gonzalez said.
Williams said astronauts to date have not had any diagnosable disorders, but NASA has seen fluctuations in their mood, which appears linked to workload demands and the phase of the mission, Williams said. For astronauts, NASA does not want a continuing negative trend that, over a longer term, could turn into a problem.
“Part of what we hope to achieve with [Gonzalez’s] research is a validated approach to address any of these concerns,” Williams said, adding that astronauts typically understand that their contributions involve work in “high-demand, extreme environments,” Williams said.
Still, like explorers in earlier centuries, astronauts on a trip to Mars will journey farther and for a longer period of time than anyone up to that point. MyCompass is a “good, efficacious program” that takes a “trans-diagnostic cognitive behavioral therapy approach,” Gonzalez said. He suggested that the program is broad enough to help individuals manage their emotions more generally, as opposed to targeting specific types of health disorders.
Gonzalez emphasized that the choice of using myCompass as a part of this experiment was his and might not be NASA’s. The purpose of this study is to investigate different methods for communicating for mental health purposes when real-time communication isn’t possible.
William suggested that Gonzalez’s work, among others, could lead to individualized procedures for each astronaut. In addition to his work with NASA, Gonzalez also assists people at the front lines after man-made or natural disasters. He has worked with Benjamin Luft, the director of Stony Brook University’s WTC Wellness Program, on a program that offers assistance to first responders after the 9/11 attacks.
Gonzalez’s father, Peter, was a police officer who worked on the World Trade Center cleanup and recovery efforts. The elder Gonzalez has since had 9/11-related health conditions.
Gonzalez and associate professor Anka Vujanovic, the co-director of the Trauma and Anxiety Clinic at the University of Houston, are putting together a research project for the Houston area. Vujanovic did a mental health survey on Houston area firefighters earlier this year. They are inviting these firefighters to complete an online survey and telephone assessment to determine their mental health after Hurricane Harvey.
They are also conducting a three- to four-hour resilience training workshop for Houston area firefighters engaged in Harvey disaster relief efforts. “This resilience program, developed by [Gonzalez] and his colleagues, has shown promising results in reducing various mental health symptoms when tested among first responders in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy,” Vujanovic explained in an email.
Vujanovic has known Gonzalez for over 10 years and suggested his questions were focused on “how can we better serve others, how can we improve existing interventions and how can we develop culturally sensitive approaches for vulnerable, understudied populations.” Gonzalez, who grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, and came to Stony Brook in 2012, said he was always interested in helping others.
Williams suggested that this kind of research can help people outside the space program. “We openly share and encourage the sharing of any of our relevant research findings to help address societal needs,” he added. Gonzalez’s research is “a great example of how a NASA focus on delivering personalized interventions in support of long-duration spaceflight could potentially be generalized to more rural settings where mental health providers may be scarce.”