The Edge of Destruction

What is inside, madam, is most important at the moment


The Belgica, marooned in Antarctic ice

In 1898, the Belgian Antarctic Expedition ship, the Belgica, spent eight desperate months trapped in polar ice. The entire crew became depressed, demotivated, hardly able to work or even to sleep. One man became convinced his crewmates were trying to kill him, and would sleep wedged into a small recess in the ship so as to remain hidden. Another became deaf and mute through psychosomatic illness. Only through the unstinting efforts of the ship’s doctor, Frederick Cook, were the crew able to shake off their maladies enough to blast the ship free of the ice and escape their terrible frozen prison.

Antarctic science is now a well-established part of national research institutions across the globe, and yet with all this professionalism things still go wrong. A study of Antarctic researchers in 1957-8 found that several experienced fugue states, leaving their quarters then coming back to consciousness some time later in another part of the station with no idea how they had got there or what they had been doing. In 1979, one crew member at South Pole station burst into the galley wreaking havoc with a two-by-four, smashing up crockery and his apparent rival for the affections of a female colleague, before charging out berserk into the freezing polar darkness. And there are many more tales that are not in the public record, as you’ll find out if you go for a few beers with an Antarctic scientist.

With the advent of space flight, these breakdowns took on a new importance. The psychological challenges faced by Antarctic researchers, and people in other confined environments such as nuclear submarine crews, have long been used as models for the stresses to be expected in long-term space travel. Since the advent of long-duration space missions on the Russian space station Mir, followed by the International Space Station, psychologists have real data from astronauts and cosmonauts to add to their insights from terrestrial observations about how human beings can cope with extreme isolation.

To be cooped up in a tiny space with a small number of other people, who you may not know well and certainly might not like very much, is bound to be tricky, as even a cursory viewing of the Big Brother franchise will indicate. Really, the remarkable thing is not that people in these environments sometimes crack up – it’s that so few of them do.

Simply being stuck inside a glorified tin can is bad enough. In the early days of the US space programme, the astronauts who were due to fly the Mercury missions insisted that the capsules should have windows. This developed into an almighty tussle with the engineers, who quite sensibly pointed out that windows would weaken the structure and the astronauts didn’t actually have anything to do in flight that would involve seeing outside. But the astronauts won, and became the first Americans to see Earth from orbit. Window time remains a valued necessity on the ISS, and even on submarines crew members are given scheduled periscope time to catch a precious glimpse of the world outside. We humans have a deep need to see the wide world: in one experiment, it was found that even paintings can have psychological benefits to isolated crews, provided they are realistic depictions of spacious landscapes. Antarctic research stations are at least well supplied with windows, but the frequent white-outs at Halley, the British station on the Brunt ice shelf, gave rise to the blank, distant gaze known as the “Halley Stare”.

It’s how people get on in small, isolated groups, though, that really interests the psychologists, and that’s where the biggest problems can lie. Whether at the poles or in space, living and working for months on end with the same few colleagues can foster intense solidarity and friendship – or resentment, bitterness and misery.

The International Biomedical Expedition to the Antarctic was a comprehensive study of how human beings cope in Antarctica, both physically and mentally. It followed twelve men on a 72-day traverse of the polar plateau in French Antarctic territory, with laboratory studies before and after the expedition. On the trip, serious group conflicts and tensions arose: some individuals found themselves ostracised due to nationality, and the observers even had to step in and intervene when the resentments got to the stage of scientists threatening to disrupt their rivals’ experiments. The mutual animosity persisted for many years after the study.

As you may have noticed, this was an all-male group. There were understandable reasons for that at the time – the study required experienced polar researchers, and in those days that was an overwhelmingly male activity, but these days we would expect a mixed-sex crew by default. Whether the presence of females increases or reduces the conflict level within the group depends one one major factor: whether or not the men are sexist arseholes. In one notorious case, a female cosmonaut boarding the Mir space station was greeted by her male colleagues presenting her with a dustpan and brush, with an announcement that she would be doing all the cleaning. As far as I can tell, her response is not recorded.

In less misogynistic teams, female members often play a positive role as mediators and peacemakers within the group, helping to reduce tensions and improving the group’s performance. Indeed, studies in isolation experiments have shown that all-female teams perform at least as well as, and often better than, all-male teams, with more sensitivity to individual concerns and less macho bullshit. Having settled the argument about whether women should be on long-term isolation missions, perhaps we should start asking  whether men should.

The size of the crew is also important. A larger group is generally better than a smaller one, as individuals are less likely to find themselves isolated or singled out, and an odd number of members is better than an even number, as it reduces the potential for deadlock in joint decision making. Clear leadership makes a big difference: the leader’s role must be well-defined, with no confusion as to who is in charge, and he or she must make decisions that the group can understand and go along with. Above all, there must be only one leader: one consistent finding is that there are problems if two crew members have a high need for dominance.

All this matters, not only because these people are stuck with each other for an extended period, but because they are in a dangerous environment in which they have to perform complex technical tasks. Individual psychological problems or toxic group dynamics only serve to increase stress. This can cause acute psychological reactions, psychosomatic illness such as fatigue or apparently inexplicable pain, and may end up with people making mistakes under pressure, with serious or even fatal consequences. Keeping busy helps, provided it is meaningful work: it’s when you’re bored that you begin to notice your colleagues’ annoying habits and irritating mannerisms.

Having said all this, severe emotional or behavioural problems are uncommon in astronauts. This is probably because they are highly screened before being allowed to go into space, and those who are unlikely to get on with others don’t make it onto the launch pad. In less highly screened isolated populations, such as Antarctic winterers, severe emotional problems have occurred at a higher rate than in the general population.

But all these isolated environments are still at least within sight of Earth. People are still in touch with home in some fashion, however distant. The psychological impact of being totally cut off is still not understood – but it could be devastating. According to astronauts, the direct visual link to Earth is of immense importance. It is not known what the psychological effect will be of this link being broken for extended periods, such as on a human mission to Mars. In Space Psychology and Psychiatry, Kanas and Manzey speculate: “At a minimum, this experience will add to the feelings of isolation and loneliness within the crew. Beyond that, it seems possible it will induce some state of internal uncoupling from the Earth, Such a state might be associated with a broad range of individual maladaptive responses, including anxiety and depressive reactions, suicidal intention, or even psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations or delusions. In addition, a partial or complete loss of commitment to the usual (Earth-bound) system of values and behavioural norms may occur. This can result in unforeseeable changes in individual behaviour and crew interactions.”

So in the light of all this, how does our Tardis crew stack up in terms of psychological risk?

We have a small, even-numbered group. There are cultural divisions – the mix of males and females is a positive thing, but there are profound differences between the mysterious time travellers and the two school teachers. They have had no training, preparation or screening for their roles, and no testing for compatibility between crew members. They are cut off completely from home, with no knowing when they might return. Leadership is erratic, unreliable and untrustworthy, when it is not being actively contested. Only one crew member has any work to do on board, though how much of that is meaningful as opposed to fussing and busywork we don’t know. The ship keeps malfunctioning, and although they are not always confined on board, whenever they do go outside people try to kill them.

It’s a wonder they don’t all crack up.


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