Monday, June 29, 2015

Is the Greatest Danger in Space Exploration Ourselves?

Venturing into space has many perils. A partial list includes loss of oxygen, loss of pressure, hull rupture by natural or artificial space debris, an injury or illness too severe for onboard resources to treat, malfunctioning engines, onboard fire, release of toxic gases, exposure to radiation or solar events and, of course, catastrophic vehicle failure.

But of all the dangers related to space travel, could our fellow crew mates pose one of the biggest risks? In our fledgling space program, there was one alleged incident that could have had severe consequences.

The story goes that a payload specialist in the shuttle program became severely depressed when his experiment was damaged beyond repair during lift-off, and [may or may not have] tried to open the airlock to commit suicide, which would have exposed the entire crew to a vacuum and killed them all. Some swear the incident never happened, or was greatly exaggerated based on a few offhand remarks made by the payload specialist. Others swear it did happen, and the crew had to secure the hatch with a padlock (other accounts say duct tape) to prevent the astronaut from carrying out his threat.

No matter the truth or fiction of the incident, NASA has identified behavioral health as a significant area of study for its astronauts. The agency also put procedures into place for crew members who might go ballistic in space and threaten to harm themselves or fellow astronauts. The protocol includes educating the crew to identify early warning signs of mental stress. In the event of an actual incident, they are trained to subdue the out-of-control person with duct tape around their wrists and ankles, secure them with bungee cord to restrain them from kicking or striking out, and then administering a sedative until such time that they can be safely released. During this time, their fellow crew mates are to calmly explain to them what they are doing and why.

Although astronauts undergo extensive psychological screening, the effects of living and working in a cramped, enclosed area surrounded by an endless vacuum could result in severe emotional episode even for those candidates who seem mentally stable. There's also a lot of concern about the degenerative effects on the brain due to exposure to radiation and weightlessness.

This video from NASA's Unexplained Files documents some of these inherent dangers to crew.


In my upcoming novel The Outer Planets, "Space Terrors" or Astroclaustrophobia (invented medical jargon which means "space claustrophobia") plays a role in one scene.

Here's a sneak peak. (This passage takes place in the corridor of a large planetary exploration vessel bound for Jupiter in the year 2040. The vessel has artificial gravity.)


The Outer Planets
Chapter Four Excerpt

    Verela slashed at Mitch, forcing him back. From behind the man, three crew members crept forward until Verela whirled, slashing the knife in their direction to warn them off. “Get back!”
    Lissa only heard two heavy footfalls before a blur of black hit Verela from the side and slammed him to the deck. The large, blond man who'd tackled him wore a Security armband on his sleeve.
    “Got your back, Chief.” Mitch rushed in to assist, and Lissa tensed when he put himself in striking distance.
            “Drop it, Jason!” the big man shouted, pounding Verela’s weapon hand against the deck, shocking his tendons. 
            Verela’s hand opened and the knife clattered to the floor. Mitch kicked it away. The weapon skittered across the corridor to Lissa’s feet and the captain secured it under his deck boot.
    Mitch and the security officer worked in tandem to subdue Varela, but his frenzied wrestling made Lissa wonder if the man was on drugs. With one arm secured, Verela twisted to one side to land a savage kick on Mitch’s thigh, knocking him off balance. Verela went at the security chief’s midsection with a series of vicious jabs of his elbow. The brawny man grunted and caught his free arm, bringing it up behind his back until he was immobilized.
  “Get off, you bastard! Get off me!” Verela ranted.
            Mitch pinned his legs. The other crew members advanced, forming a tight circle around the combatants. The captain signaled Lissa to stay put and broke through their ranks. She followed in his wake despite his warning.
            “Call Medical,” the captain barked.
            “On their way, sir.”
            Med Tech Elena Stevens arrived holding a transdermal gun as she shouldered through the crowd of shocked faces. Mitch and the security officer pinned the prisoner down and nodded to Elena to approach. She knelt at Verela’s side. “Jason, I’m going to administer a sedative on Dr. Elsborg’s orders. Hands clear, gentleman.”
  Verela screamed obscenities and spit on her scrubs. She frowned and pressed the gun to the back of his arm, injecting the tranquilizer. Verela wailed and fought to rise. Moments later, his cursing ceased.
  The security officer looked at Elena. “Great job, Stevens. Thanks.”
            “Take him to Med Bay,” the captain ordered. “I want him secured and sedated until I can consult with Dr. Shrader. And see to COB Browne.”
            “Yes, sir,” Elena said, pointing the COB out to other medical staffers.
            “Any clue what set him off?” Captain Storing asked the security chief.
            The man looked up. “Possible astroclaustrophobic episode, sir.”
            Lissa bit her lip. Astroclaustrophia. Space Terrors. Panic at being trapped in an enclosed environment in space. Even careful screening for claustrophobic tendencies couldn’t always determine who might be susceptible. Symptoms ranged from severe depression and paranoia to confusion and violent behavior—like attacking fellow crew members or trying to break out an airlock to escape. 
            Except Verela hadn’t seemed confused. He seemed to know exactly what he was doing.  

So what are your thoughts? Do you think the human factor might pose a great risk for extended space flight? If you were an astronaut, would it concern you?

Hope you enjoyed the first look at The Outer Planets.  Have a great week!


  1. Laurie, I enjoyed your excerpt from The Outer Planets. Looking forward to reading more!

    I think the human factor is a risk in any situation. We can be pretty unpredictable. Behavioral science attempts to make the unpredictable less so. Then technology can provide all sorts of fail safes. My experience in IT has taught me it is impossible to predict and plan for everything. That is where training and procedures take over - like NASA and like your security officers in The Outer Planets. I like to think that with an 'expect anything' philosophy, humans will someday be able to make space exploration as easy as it is in science fiction!

  2. Thanks, Riley. Glad you enjoyed the excerpt. :) Yes, humans are extremely unpredictable, especially in situations of stress. Like you, I hope space travel will someday be as commonplace as traveling via airline, but I think we'll have a lot of hard lessons to learn on our way to reaching that point. Thanks for stopping by!


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