Alone in Space

Staying sane in outer space. Virtual-reality therapy for astronauts.

By David Gallagher, published November 1, 2002 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

The dangers of long-duration space missions aren't just physical. Limited social outlets, loss of privacy and distance from family—and from Earth—can leave astronauts vulnerable to depression and interpersonal conflicts. One NASA report warns that psychosocial interaction in outer space "may well be one of the more serious challenges to exploratory missions by humans."

To combat this, NASA is developing a self-help system to address conflicts and assess psychological disorders such as mild depression. The program could be modified for use in other extreme environments such as submarines or oil rigs.

Dubbed the Smart Medical System for Psychosocial Support, the program will combine video, audio, text and graphics to create a lifelike environment. Actors are cast as virtual crew members in prerecorded scenarios that astronauts then use when problems arise. In a typical simulation, an astronaut witnesses a conflict between two virtual crewmates and must decide whether to remain neutral, attempt to mediate or take sides. Each scenario has various choices, based partially on input from veterans of long-duration space flights.

Eventually, astronauts will need tools to cope with other psychiatric disorders. The current plan for a human mission to Mars entails nine months of travel time in each direction in addition to one year on the planet itself.