Exploring the Psychological Tolls of Space Travel, Before 'Lucy In The Sky'

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Lucy Cola (played by Natalie Portman) is moved to tears by the sight of Earth from space, in 'Lucy In The Sky.' (Fox Searchlight / YouTube)

Earlier this week, the trailer for Natalie Portman's new movie, Lucy In The Sky, emerged. In it, Portman plays an astronaut struggling to readjust to life on Earth after seeing "the whole universe."

The film was reportedly inspired by real-life shuttle astronaut, Lisa Nowak, who in 2007, armed with a knife, a hammer and a BB gun, famously drove from Houston to Orlando to confront a romantic rival. Nowak was alleged to have pepper sprayed the woman, was charged with attempted kidnapping and battery (among other offenses) and was ultimately sentenced to a year of probation. While Nowak's story has since become something of a punchline—most notably in the "sad astronaut" portion of 2017 movie, Rough Night—her case did shine a light on the very real mental stresses that can result from going to space.

When astronauts experience psychological problems after returning home, it's impossible to know just how much their time in orbit played a role. While most readjust relatively quickly, there have been a number of high-profile worst case scenarios. The first French woman in space, Claudie Haignere, attempted suicide in 2008, and astronaut Charles E. Brady Jr. took his own life ten years after a space mission. (NASA conducted an extensive investigation into Brady's death "to look for lessons learned ... Did we miss something?... Should we have intervened and acted at some point?")

The second man to walk on the moon, Buzz Aldrin, has been open about the alcohol dependency that came after his famous Apollo 11 journey. "When I was not drinking," Aldrin wrote in his 2009 autobiography, "my thoughts tended to lead me to a deeper sense of self-evaluation and introspection. What am I doing? What is my role in life now? I realized that I was experiencing the ‘melancholy of things done.’”


Perhaps even more surprising is the number of astronauts who go to space seeking scientific answers and return home having found God instead. After a 1972 mission on Apollo 16, both Gene Cerman and Charlie Duke came home in a deeply religious state. "I was overwhelmed by the certainty that what I was witnessing was part of the universality of God," Duke noted. Cerman agreed, stating, "There has to be a creator of the universe who stands above the religions that we ourselves create."

In 1969, while floating above the Earth, Rusty Schweikhart became overwhelmed by the feeling that he was "part of everyone and everything sweeping past me below." On returning, Schweikhart took up transcendental meditation and began volunteer work. Similarly, after doing a 9-hour space walk in 1971, Edgar Mitchell came back to Earth and founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences. The organization's mission statement is: "Through modern scientific inquiry, we seek to better understand a timeless truth—humanity is deeply interconnected."

NASA isn't just aware of the psychological changes that can result from leaving Earth for protracted periods of time, it dedicates a great deal of time, research and training to ensuring astronauts stay mentally well. Between 2003 and 2016, NASA even had astronauts keep detailed journals so that the most common in-orbit behavioral shifts could be identified and appropriately prepared for.

From NASA's "Human Research Roadmap," in a document titled "Risk of Adverse Cognitive or Behavioral Conditions and Psychiatric Disorders."
From NASA's "Human Research Roadmap," in a document titled "Risk of Adverse Cognitive or Behavioral Conditions and Psychiatric Disorders." (NASA)

Hours of psychiatric screening must be completed by astronauts before they are approved to go on missions. Even after they've received a pass, they still undergo monitoring from mental health professionals on a regular basis. The crew of the International Space Station, for example, is required to conduct psychological conferences every two weeks to make sure everyone is keeping it together. In addition, the ISS clinic is equipped with antipsychotics, antidepressants, physical restraints and tranquilizers, just in case something goes wrong.

Fortunately, NASA research demonstrates that preparing for the worst tends to work. "It was apparent from [the astronauts'] journal entries ... that conditions on board the ISS were far better than tolerable," one report reads. "The results show that NASA’s effort regarding interpersonal relationships, teamwork, and psychological support has been effective."

There can be no doubt though that the brave souls who boldly go where billions of humans can only dream about, frequently find themselves irreversibly changed by the experience. Lucy In The Sky promises to offer audiences a glimpse at the euphoria and existential questions that arise with temporarily leaving the planet—and the risks that come with that. Perhaps seeing those struggles play out on the big screen might offer Earth-bound humans our own shift, one in which Lisa Nowak's story doesn't seem quite so funny after all.