new york — The attempted murder charges filed Feb. 5 against an astronaut who flew on a shuttle mission less than a year ago prompted NASA to initiate a review of the way the space agency evaluates and monitors the mental fitness of its astronauts. In addition, a second review will be conducted to assess whether changes are needed to existing psychological screening procedures for new astronauts, NASA officials said during a Feb. 7 press conference.
Both reviews are a response to the highly publicized arrest of shuttle astronaut Lisa Nowak, who was charged in Orlando with the attempted murder of another agency employee that Florida authorities said she viewed as a romantic rival for the affections of another astronaut.
Nowak was a mission specialist on the STS-121 crew, which flew a 13-day mission in July 2006 that included a visit to the international space station. One of her jobs during the mission was to control the shuttle’s robotic arm during spacewalks.
The reviews will address whether “any modifications would be advisable to ensure that our astronauts have the level of psychological and medical care and attention they need,” NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale told reporters during a Feb. 7 p ress conference. The reviews, she said, will address the following questions:
When should astronauts be required to undergo psychological screening?
What manner and how often during an astronauts career should they be evaluated?
Were there any indications from Nowak’s interaction with astronauts and NASA employees that might have suggested something was wrong prior to Monday’s arrest?
The review will involve medical officers outside NASA and will draw partly upon the results of work that has been ongoing for 20 years within the agency to track the health of both active duty and retired astronauts, said Richard Williams, NASA chief medical officer at the space agency’s Washington headquarters.
“All aspects of medical care and behavioral health care, including potential long-term effect of spaceflight, will be of interest and will be addressed by the review group,” Williams said.
Bob Cabana, deputy director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, said psychological support is currently available to all astronauts and NASA employees and dismissed suggestions that astronauts avoid seeking help because it might negatively impact their careers.
“We know if somebody needs help, there are services available and there’s no stigma to it,” Cabana said. “It doesn’t prevent anybody from future space flight assignments or anything else.”
Terence McGuire, NASA’s lead manned spaceflight psychiatrist for 36 years until the mid-1990s, said the initial screening process and medical care levels for astronauts should be able to catch problems among them before they become a serious concern. That makes Nowak’s Jan. 5 arrest by Florida police all the more perplexing, he added.
NASA astronaut candidates are subjected to a pair of two-hour psychological screenings when applying to the Astronaut Corps, and receive annual check-ups by doctors trained to spot any hint of unease or behavioral distress, Jeff Davis, NASA director of Space Life Sciences at the agency’s Johnson Space Center, said in a Feb. 7 press briefing. But astronauts are not required to undergo regular psychological exams on top of their normal health checkups, NASA officials added.
“I think that to put another layer on that, and say, well, every year we’re supposed to have a psychological evaluation, I think that’s gilding the lily,” McGuire said. “They should be able to get everything that they need … I don’t really think that they need something better.”
But McGuire conceded that just because a support base exists, does not make necessarily an attractive option for some astronauts, pilots or other high-performing professionals whom may believe that seeking medical assistance could have future repercussions.
“Pilots, in general, tend to stay away from medical people,” said McGuire, a former U.S. Air Force flight surgeon. “[Flight surgeons] are one of the only groups that can stop them from doing what they truly love. They have the capacity to ground them.”
Gaining a pilot or astronaut’s trust as a physician is the key, McGuire said.
McGuire said that during his term as NASA’s chief spaceflight psychiatrist, he encountered cases of post-flight malaise, especially given the intensive training and rigorous schedule in the years between an astronaut’s selection for a mission and the subsequent spaceflight. Post-mission malaise does not affect all pilots, though it can be drawn out or fade quickly in those it does affect, McGuire added.
“I would imagine that there is somewhat of a letdown following a mission, just as there would be for anyone who has planned for and completed a significant event,” said Jack Stuster, a NASA contractor involved in an experiment reviewing journals kept by ISS astronauts during their missions to track their mental states. “It might be more acute for astronauts because their flight possibilities are so limited and there’s such a long preparation time.”
Stuster thinks it is unwise to link Nowak’s behavior to her experience at NASA.
“We didn’t hear about the dozens of other cases in Florida last week where people behaved oddly who weren’t associated with NASA,” Stuster said. “This incident really doesn’t have anything to do with NASA. It has to do with human behavior and people’s reactions to circumstances.”
Stuster is the author of “Bold Endeavors: Lessons from Polar and Space Exploration,” a book that compares and contrasts the experiences of explorers, shipwreck survivors, astronauts and others who have endured long-duration confinement and isolation.
“Astronauts are far better prepared psychologically and technically than explorers of the past, ” he said.