London, August 26 : Researchers are developing a self-help software that allows astronauts to carry their counselors with them on a DVD, which would help them soothe their stress levels more effectively.
When astronauts in orbit stress out, they call Earth to chat with a NASA psychiatrist. But transmitting messages to Mars and beyond would take 20 minutes or so, requiring new approaches to mental health in space.
Astronauts and cosmonauts go through psychological screening before they are selected for duty, and they are trained to deal with the pressures of risky space missions. roposed crewed missions to Mars, though, would be a challenge even for these hardened space farers.
Each leg of the trip would take at least six months, and the entire mission could last up to three years. Astronauts would live in cramped quarters, their actions constantly monitored and scheduled by others.
They would face monotonous days in empty space, with nothing to do and nowhere to go if something went wrong.
"It will be a bit like prison," said Steven Suedfeld of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.
Messages to and from Earth would take up to 20 minutes to relay - so travellers to Mars would be, in many ways, on their own.
But now, according to a report in New Scientist, James Carter of Harvard Medical School and colleagues are creating a new self-help tool that the astronauts can take with them - a piece of multimedia-heavy software called the "Virtual Space Station".
It asks crew members to respond to multiple-choice questions about how to handle various problems that may arise in space and to make lists of their worries and how to solve them. It focuses on mental health challenges that were highlighted by a panel of 11 astronauts.
One element of the Virtual Space Station is an interpersonal conflict widget designed by Leonard Greenhalgh of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth in Hanover, New Hampshire.
Its interactive videos ask the user to negotiate and resolve conflicts.
In one scenario, for example, an actor playing a fellow crew member accidentally unplugs a critical computer and asks the user to cover up the mistake.
The user picks a series of responses, and Greenhalgh appears and suggests what could have been done differently.
"It's like a choose-your-own-adventure book," said Carter.
The second module of the Virtual Space Station focuses on depression, using an approach called "problem-solving therapy", which is both clinically effective and relatively simple to encode into a software program.
The Virtual Space Station team hopes that their tool will prove useful not only for the space community, but for any ventures that operate in similarly bleak conditions - like scientists working for months in Antarctica.