Page last updated at 13:34 GMT, Tuesday, 14 October 2008 14:34 UK

Astronauts to get virtual therapy

Digital Planet
Clark Boyd
BBC World Service

An astronaut taking a spacewalk outside of the space shuttle Discovery
Depression can pose a threat to crew safety and mission operations

A virtual space station is being developed that will aim to help astronauts stave off depression and manage inter-personal conflict while they are off-planet.

When completed the software will be used by Nasa during training and on missions to the space station and perhaps further afield.

The therapeutic program has been jointly created by former astronaut Dr Jay Buckey, who is also professor of space medicine and physiology at Dartmouth Medical School and Dr Jim Cartreine - a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School.

In 1998 Dr Buckey flew on Space Shuttle Columbia during which he took part in the "Neurolab" mission which looked at the effect space travel had on the human brain.

For the 16 days the team were in orbit the team got along well together, said Dr Buckey.

"We had a great crew and worked together well and that's the kind of experience that you want everyone to have," he said.

"Of course, I've seen and heard stories of when things don't go that way and it can be absolutely devastating," he told BBC World Service's Digital Planet programme.

Under pressure

It is perhaps no surprise that astronauts face immense psychological pressure while in space because of the dangers involved and the tough choices they have to make while in orbit.

An astronaut attatched to an arm on the International Space Station
Longer space missions can have an impact on mental health
This can leave astronauts prone to depression and give rise to interpersonal conflicts with other crew members. As space flights get longer, said Dr Buckey, the more likely that issues would arise.

"The astronauts and cosmonauts who fly in space, tend to be extremely healthy people, both physically and mentally," said Dr Cartreine.

"If a problem does come up in space, there are not a lot of resources up there to deal with it," he added.

Although astronauts do have audio and video access to psychologists when flying, the counselling is only available when communication links are working.

Historically astronauts have also been reluctant to reveal psychological problems for fear of being grounded.

To give astronauts more places to turn to the interactive program will help crew members cope with depression and resolve conflicts with their colleagues. Left untreated these conflicts could pose a substantial threat to crew safety and mission operations during long-duration spaceflights.

Every scenario that astronauts can play through in the virtual environment are based on the real-life experience of 29 current and veteran astronauts.

The program was tested on researchers spending time on Antarctic expeditions which are comparable to space flight in that they involve long periods away from home, isolation and a need to work in teams.

The developers are currently looking to recruit subjects to test the latest version.

"We sat down and thought multimedia may be a great way to look at some of the psychological problems of space flight," said Dr Buckey.

"The virtual space station combines animation, audio and video and the program currently fits on an 8GB hard drive, so astronauts can easily carry it with them on a mission," he added.

Test firing

One interactive scenario that tackles conflict teams up an astronaut with a fictional flight engineer called "Chuck".

In the virtual scenario, "Chuck" has made a mistake and asks the astronaut to not inform ground control about the problem.

Anyone playing the scenario has to choose from a variety of responses which either resolve the conflict or make it worse.

It's a demanding environment and it's inevitable that we are going to have some sort of conflict
Jay Buckey

The two available options involve defying "Chuck" or telling ground control about his mistake.

"People who get to be astronauts are usually really good at working with other people and working in teams," said Mr Buckey.

"It's a demanding environment and it's inevitable that we are going to have some sort of conflict," he added.

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