Natalie Portman Lucy in the Sky
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Science Behind the Fiction: What does going to space do to your brain? Can it drive you mad?

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Oct 9, 2019

The recent film Lucy in the Sky might take its name from the famed Beatles song, but its story is derived from real life. Yet, this isn't your ordinary biopic. The writers dispensed with all the usual hang-ups that usually accompany adapting history for the silver screen and, instead, used real events as an inspirational tapestry from which to draw.

Despite the changed names and fictional framework, it's easy for anyone even vaguely familiar with recent astronaut history to see the seeds that sprouted this particular tale. In 2007, former astronaut Lisa Nowak made headlines when she made a cross-country trip in order to get revenge against the woman who had stolen the affections of her lover.

Sadly, Nowak's saga overshadowed her incredible accomplishments. Ordinarily, venturing into space — joining that elite club of individuals who have slipped the bonds of Earth — would be the defining event in a person's life. An individual must go to extreme lengths to outdo strapping oneself to a rocket and blasting off into the great expanse. There are few things that can overwhelm the public consciousness — and Google's analytics — but attempted kidnapping (and maybe attempted murder) fit the bill.

Nowak's attorney alleged temporary insanity and the narrative shifted to suggest that Nowak's experiences off-world, combined with unique pressure back on Earth, conspired to create a mental state sufficient to explain her behavior.

The question is, can time in space impact a person so completely?

With more than 50 years of data, the physical effects of space travel are pretty well documented. After decades, NASA and its related organizations around the world have gathered considerable data about the ways leaving Earth impacts the body.

Early on, missions were relatively short. Even trips to the Moon, roughly half-a-million miles round-trip, could be accomplished over a number of days. But as we endeavor to travel greater distances, to Mars and beyond, the need to understand the long-term impact of space increases.

A number of physical detriments have been observed in space-farers over the years. Short trips avoid the majority of these ills but extended stays come with considerable risks. The most immediate impact is that of decreased gravity. Astronaut Scott Kelly spent a year on the International Space Station and one of the primary goals was to measure the impact of an extended stay in space.

The experiment was assisted by the fact that Kelly is a twin, allowing NASA scientists to compare his physiological changes to that of his brother, fellow astronaut Mark Kelly. After spending a year in space, Scott experienced changes to gene expression consistent with extended time off-planet as well as changes to his immune system and vision. Though most of the changes corrected themselves after eight months back on Earth.

Extended periods in low-gravity are also known to negatively impact bone density, hand-eye coordination, vision, muscle density, spatial orientation, and can cause kidney stones. Astronauts might also have an elevated risk of cancers due to radiation exposure.

While the physical impact of time in space is not fully understood, it is something astronauts are aware of and a risk they accept willingly for a chance at pushing the boundary of human exploration.

What's less well understood is the impact of space on the mind.

SPACE MADNESS?

Those same physiological changes experienced by astronauts might, at the same time, affect their minds. While traveling, even to places on Earth, is often seen as glamorous, there are consequences that most of us don't discuss. Travel is often accompanied by digestive problems and trouble sleeping.

If these problems are bad when traveling over the surface of the planet, they might be exacerbated off-world. A recent study found that 78 percent of astronauts used sleep aids during shuttle missions, indicating that sleep disturbances were abundantly common. Whether or not this was due to the change in location, the high-stress nature of the job, or physical changes is unknown.

We do know, however, that sleep disturbances impact mental health. Disruption of ordinary sleeping patterns impacts neurotransmitters and hormone levels and can impact emotional states and the ability of the brain to process information.

For its part, NASA implements extensive psychiatric evaluations before and during astronaut training. The idea is to identify any existing psychological red flags that might result in a negative result down the line. But the individuals involved, both those applying and those evaluating, are only human and the end result can't be known until it occurs.

The fact is, life in space is stressful. It's an environment we're not fully equipped or adapted to live in and that can mean that sometimes the results are unexpected. It's difficult to prepare while training on the ground for the isolation many astronauts experience in space.

The mental impacts of space travel have been downplayed, for obvious reason. We want to imagine our explorers as perfected hero figures, capable of dealing with whatever is thrown at them. The reality, though, might be entirely different.

The Canadian Space Agency set out to shed some light on the problem with Health in Space: Daring to Explore. The exhibit showcases the physical risks of space travel but also explores what happens in the mind. At the exhibit launch, former Canadian astronaut Robert Thrisk said, "You're very, very far away from the people you love on Earth and that can make you sad perhaps."

There is also some evidence of post-mission psychiatric problems including fatigue, irritability, inability to concentrate, restlessness, and more. It seems that the experience of space travel, due either to the unique environment or the experience of seeing the world from afar, can have negative effects when travelers are returned home.

The truth is, despite decades of information, we don't yet have good enough information about how people re-acclimate to life at home after such a trip.

The good news is, due to NASA's extensive screening, incidents of psychiatric events are minimal and most astronauts report positive responses to their time in space. While seeing the world from afar does seem to change the way they experience the world, it is often positive.

When considering the evidence, leaving the surly bonds of our world has a net positive impact. Nowak seems to be an outlier and was likely impacted by circumstances outside of those related to her brief time in space. We would do well, however, to continue investigating the impact of living in such an unusual environment as we reach deeper into the void.

Lucy in the Sky is in theaters now.


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