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Professional News
NASA Addresses Mental Health Of Mars-Mission Members
Psychiatric News
Volume 37 Number 3 page 5-5
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The above illustration depicts how a NASA trip to Mars and back in 2014 might take place. The illustration is adapted from one in the Institute of Medicine’s report, "Safe Passage: Astronaut Care for Exploration Missions."

A manned Mars mission will take two-and-a-half or three years, however, and would undoubtedly present mental and physical health risks that shorter space missions do not. So NASA asked the Institute of Medicine to prepare a report to help it identify the mental and physical health risks that astronauts would be up against during such a mission. NASA also wanted advice on how to mitigate those risks. The Institute of Medicine’s report, titled "Safe Passage: Astronaut Care for Exploration Missions," has now been published.

The three major health risks that astronauts will face on a long-term mission such as to Mars, the report stated, are exposure to radiation, bone loss, and mental/behavioral health problems. So, in the mental/behavioral health area, as in the radiation and bone-loss ones, it is important that NASA do three things before it sends astronauts on such a long-term mission, the report asserts.

One of these steps is to conduct research to better understand the risks involved. A second is to conduct research to learn how to protect astronauts from such risks. And the third is to put a health care system into place that can protect astronauts from those risks.

Here are several of the questions about mental/behavioral health risks that the report indicates should be answered:

• What would happen to a person’s mental and behavioral health if he or she were cooped up with six or seven other individuals during a three-year period?

• What would living and working together in such close quarters over such an extended time do to group interactions? "Schisms, friction, withdrawal, competitiveness, scapegoating, and other maladaptive group behaviors are found among highly competent men and women working together in normal terrestrial settings," the report stated. "They can also be expected among astronaut crews."

• If mental and behavioral health problems arose among a flight crew, how could the ground crew intervene effectively, especially as it would take some 40 minutes for the flight crew to communicate with the ground crew and for the ground crew’s response to get back to the flight crew?

• What sorts of mental/behavioral health supports would the flight crew need both from people back on earth and from each other?

• How could the mental and behavioral performance of the flight crew be monitored from earth?

• What kinds of tools might be developed so that flight-crew members could monitor their own moods and cognitive functioning?

• Finally, what kinds of mental health care might the astronauts need after returning to earth from such a long journey in space?

The Institute of Medicine is a private, nonprofit organization that provides health policy advice under a congressional charter granted to the National Academy of Sciences. NASA funded the preparation of the report.

The 318-page Institute of Medicine report, "Safe Passage: Astronaut Care for Exploration Missions," can be read online at www.nap.edu/catalog/10218.html. A summary of the mental/behavioral health recommendations contained in the report can be found in a box titled "Behavioral Health and Performance Research and Development Opportunities." This box can be read online at http://books.nap.edu/books/0309075858/html/14.html.

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The above illustration depicts how a NASA trip to Mars and back in 2014 might take place. The illustration is adapted from one in the Institute of Medicine’s report, "Safe Passage: Astronaut Care for Exploration Missions."

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