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March 27, 2015
by Lee Kehoe, MS, LMHC, NCC

Scott Kelly: Veteran, and Seasoned Astronaut to Spend Year in Space- How Will He Cope?

March 27, 2015 05:55 by Lee Kehoe, MS, LMHC, NCC

Astronaut and veteran Scott Kelly, 51, is preparing to live a full year in the international space station in order to study the impact a year in space could have physically, mentally, and emotionally. The objectives of this mission are to study the potential biological, as well as psychological, impacts of prolonged time in space on a human being. This mission could have broader implications as NASA looks to the future in creating space stations for human beings, as well as possible hubs on the moon where individuals would live and work. 

In addition to his work as an astronaut, Kelly is a retired US Navy Captain serving for 25 years, with multiple tours of duty on the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. Kelly continues to serve as an astronaut with NASA, with five spaceflight expeditions on his resume. Kelly was chosen by NASA to be the subject of study in a year long mission in space not only because of his impressive experience as a navy pilot and astronaut, but also because he has an identical twin brother. Kelly’s twin brother, Mark Kelly, is also an experienced astronaut. The identical twins offer a unique opportunity to study the impact of living in space, while having an identical control subject here on earth. Scott Kelly will live in the international space station alone for one year, all the while being subject to testing that will provide data on how the body and mind adapt to prolonged time in outer space. Meanwhile, Mark Kelly, will undergo the same testing here on earth in order to ensure it is in fact the outer space environment that may be related to any changes experienced by Scott Kelly. 

Scott Kelly’s extensive naval background and NASA expeditions make him uniquely qualified to withstand the challenges that can arise from not only living in outer space for a year, but being confined to small quarters with no human interaction. Such isolation and lack of a human connection can take a psychological toll on any human being. How can Scott Kelly’s experiences lend to his coping with living alone in space for a year?

Prolonged Time Alone

There are numerous possible complications that Scott Kelly may encounter in being alone in a confined space for a full year. While Kelly will be in frequent communication with operators, engineers, and controllers down on earth, the lack of a physical presence of another human being can have challenging implications on the mind. The physical presence of another human being allows for connection and relatedness. The lack of such relatedness can lend to a prolonged state of stress for individuals who experience prolonged time alone. When the body and mind are in a prolonged state of stress, there can by numerous biological and psychological effects including but not limited to; increased release of stress hormones, increased blood pressure, racing thoughts, feelings of anxiety, hyperalertness, and inability to sleep. Such conditions can create a vicious self perpetuating cycle that in it’s extreme form can lead to stress overload and a mental breakdown. 

Psychological Impact of Disorientation 

As Kelly remains in space within the confines of the international space station, there will be no presence of the daily and seasonal changes that cue the mind and body to remain on a certain biological clock. The rising and setting of the sun, the changes in the weather over the year each contribute to the maintenance of the human biological clock. The lack of such patterns can create a sense of disorientation in a person. In addition to challenges with insomnia. 

Disorientation can be experienced on many levels within the mind. When individuals experience jet lag from traveling across time zones, they experience a sense of disorientation as their body remains on a time schedule that no longer matches the environmental cues of time. Kelly will be experiencing a complete loss of such environmental cues and time all together. Prolonged disorientation to time can trigger symptoms of anxiety within individuals lacking such environmental biological cues. The anxiety can manifest as more manageable moments of confusion that Kelly can adjust to through daily routines. However, in more extreme cases an individual might experience the onset of paranoia as the mind attempts to make sense of the bodies prolonged sense of disorientation and lack of a normal biological-environmental interaction of time. Feelings of anxiety can be compounded by the insomnia that is common amongst astronauts who have been through prolonged missions in space. 

How Can Kelly Cope?

Kelly has had to go through incredibly harsh conditions through his naval and NASA experiences. The past missions and expeditions have tested Kelly’s mental strength and most likely allowed him to develop great insight into his mind and body. Developing a mindful awareness of oneself can allow for individuals to gain the ability to control their reactions to stressful environments. 

It will also be vital for Kelly to remain as connected to his main support system even if it is through technology. Hearing the voices of his loved ones can evoke that sense of connection to some degree. Additionally, Kelly’s use of logging journal entries not only provides useful data for the mission objectives, but can provide a cathartic coping strategy for Kelly to remain aware of his own internal processes, and ultimately keep himself in check. 

In order to cope with the disruption in Kelly’s biological clock and possible disorienting thoughts and anxiety, it will be vital for Kelly to stick to a daily routine that provides structure in the day and provides his mind and body some sense of time. Furthermore, NASA has used LED lights in the past in order to attempt to assist astronauts with insomnia and cue the body to earthly changes in time.

The impact of gaining data on the prolonged impact of living in outer space is vast for NASA’s continued development and future goals for life in space. However, it is also important to consider how Kelly might cope when he returns to earth. After a year alone, reorienting to time and daylight may be challenging for Kelly. It will be just as important to remain mindfully aware of any psychological changes on earth as it was while he was in space. In order to check in and assess his level of coping with transitioning back to life on earth. Reestablishing ways of interacting with other people who are physically present, and in many ways relearning ways of being human on earth.

About the Author

Lee Kehoe Lee Kehoe, MS, LMHC, NCC

I have had the opportunity to train and work with an agency that works within a diverse range of facilities in the Rochester area, engaging with clients from all walks of life. My experiences have provided me a solid foundation for Counseling.

Lee Kehoe can be found at
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