From Star Trek to Ren and Stimpy to Van Der Graaf Generator’s “Pioneers Over C,” pop culture and fiction are filled with men, women, and animals who have gone excitedly beyond the bounds of the Earth ... only to lose their grips on reality and mentally break from the stress of space travel. The phenomenon is colloquially known as Space Madness—and while we laugh it off as a TV trope today, in the late 50s, when manned space travel was just a few years away, the disorder was a valid fear.
Around the same time that American moviegoers were watching General Merritt lose his mind and sabotage his craft in Conquest of Space, psychiatrists feared the same fate for real-life space travelers. In a special report on “space psychiatry,” the American Journal of Psychiatry noted that one might expect strong indications of psychopathology from men who signed up to be fired into the cosmos. "Volunteers for dangerous missions," it said, "occasionally have rather bizarre motivations." The report recommended interviews and psychologic testing to weed out those with “gross judgmental defects or other major defects in ego integration,” but concluded that “man’s psychological plasticity is a matter of record, and if workable and habitable space ships are constructed … effective pilots can be found to use them.”
Still, the idea weighed heavy on minds at NASA. In an examination of the history of space madness published earlier this year, science historian Matthew H. Hersch writes that government psychiatrists feared that the volunteers for the first manned space missions would be “impulsive, suicidal, sexually aberrant thrill-seekers.” Even if guys like these didn’t make it through screening, the psychiatrists were still worried that seemingly normal, sound minds would break when dealing with weightlessness, radiation, isolation, fear, and even the deprivation of cigarettes and Coca-Cola in space, and doom their missions.
Down to Earth
When the United States Air Force began trying to identify pilots with both the technical skills and the physical and mental fortitude for space travel, however, the psychiatrists who did the screening actually found little cause for alarm.
Instead, the volunteers exhibited many qualities associated with the stereotypical NASA nerd. Most were were engineers that, while drawn to the allure and danger of flying, were studious, professional, responsible, and comfortable working with dangerous machines. They were stable men with “excellent interpersonal skills and slight obsessive-compulsive tendencies.”
“Tests revealed the would-be spacemen to be sane, poised professionals able to absorb extraordinary stresses,” Hersch writes, and the screeners found the whole group to be free of “psychosis, clinically significant neurosis or personality disorder.” While a few pilots didn’t meet the intellectual aptitude requirements, none of the initial volunteers were cut from selection on psychological grounds.
In training and in orbit, the astronauts displayed the same cool they had during testing. After Neil Armstrong had to eject from a jet-powered lunar landing simulator less than a second before it crashed to the ground, Hersch recounts, he was back at his desk an hour later, quietly working, with “a lack of affect that one colleague regarded as odd, even for an astronaut." Psychiatrists assigned to returning astronauts to look for evidence they were “spaced out or raptured to death” found no signs of any problems. “If anything," says Hersch, “spaceflight had flattened the men's personalities rather than encouraging bouts of emotion or grandiose thoughts.”
There are some notable exceptions, of course. After his space-faring career, Buzz Aldrin struggled with alcoholism and depression as part of what he called a “good, old-fashioned, American nervous breakdown.” Other astronauts dealt with substance abuse too, or marital discord, but “these reactions were not uniform,” Hersch says, and didn’t “amount to a discrete syndrome or disease.”
With Space Madness never manifesting in real life, a new archetype was born: the astronaut as an unshakeable space-age cowboy.
You can read Hersch’s article here.