The Call of the Abyss

In the days of sailing ships, healthy young sailors would occasionally throw themselves from the boat and drown, overcome by a fascination with the deep, seemingly endless sea. This often-reported syndrome, labeled "the call of the abyss," seems to have a modern-day equivalent in spaceflight. Just as psychologists describe some people who are compelled to stand on the edge of precipices or tall bridges staring into the abyss and then jumping, more than one astronaut has expressed the same fascination by the free-falling view of space afforded by space walks.

Space walkers have expressed a strange sensation when floating in space with Earth below and the entire universe above them. Right from the start, some space walkers expressed a reluctance to return to the safety of their space station. America's first space walker, Ed White, had to be ordered back into his space station by the director of Mission Control. According to Dr. Tamarack R. Czarnik, who wrote an online article titled "Medical Emergencies in Space," White reportedly sighed and said to Mission Control, "It's the saddest moment of my life."

In 1977 this compulsion to stare with fascination into the void almost turned deadly for rookie cosmonaut Yuri Romanenko. During his stay aboard Salyut 6 with Georgi Grechko, a space walk was scheduled; Grechko would space walk while his partner, Romanenko would remain inside the airlock, monitoring medical readings. But Romanenko's curiosity got the better of him; he reportedly stuck his head out of the hatch and then began drifting farther and farther out. When he started drifting by, Grechko realized his friend's safety line was not attached, and Romanenko was drifting off into space. By leaning over as Romanenko drifted by, Grechko was able to grab hold of his loose safety line and pull him back in.

NASA is aware of this strange and interesting phenomenon. One of the reasons for the tether cord is to prevent space walkers from drifting off into space, where they would die within a few hours and then remain in orbit for years before falling back to Earth. Nonetheless, NASA officials remain vigilant about the possibility of an astronaut, mesmerized by the abyss of space, disconnecting his or her tether and drifting away.

Floating in the abyss of space is both exhilarating and exceedingly dangerous for astronauts.

After a few months onboard Mir, American astronaut John Blaha (left) began to exhibit hostility toward fellow crew members and other symptoms of serious depression.

who had been on board Mir for four months, began experiencing fits of anger, insomnia, and withdrawal from other crew members. According to fellow American astronaut Jerry M. Linenger, "He was hurting, he was, in essence, depressed."24

Stress resulting when a fire broke out aboard Mir led Linenger himself to become increasingly withdrawn and isolated; eventually he even refused to participate in voice communications with ground control. Space historian Bryan Burrough observes in his book Dragonfly: An Epic Adventure of Survival in Outer Space, "Linenger's voice is high-pitched and shrill; he sounds as if he is on the verge of some kind of breakdown."25

Many psychological problems on the ISS and Mir stemmed from cultural and political differences between the Russian and American crews. Part of the

After a few months onboard Mir, American astronaut John Blaha (left) began to exhibit hostility toward fellow crew members and other symptoms of serious depression.

problem was the inability of the two crews to communicate effectively because no one was completely fluent in both Russian and English. This is of particular import for the ISS, where crew members of different nationalities must live together, perform experiments of various types together, and operate the spacecraft together in a confined place for three to six months. Political conflicts between Russian and American politicians over matters on Earth still occasionally spill over on the ISS, causing shouting matches among members of the crew.

Space station experiments since the 1970s have yielded solid results for understanding the psychological and physical stresses placed on astronauts. Some of what has been learned has also been applied to medicine on Earth for the benefit of the public. Although NASA managers and researchers are excited about their record to date, they are equally excited about a whole set of experiments in other disciplines as well.

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