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it happened to me

What it’s like to help select a new crop of astronauts Add to ...

Two broad groups apply to be astronauts: There are the early dreamers, who peer into space and think, ‘Wow, that’s so amazing.’ The other group are the late-deciders, who are plugging along … they might have been in the military, or a physician, and they decide to apply on a whim. One is no better than the other.

Twenty-five years ago, I was asked by NASA to be part of the team of clinical psychologists who assist with astronaut selection. I was also recently in Toronto to help the Canadian Space Agency interview 17 semi-finalists to be Canada’s two new astronauts.

We tag team with psychiatrists. The interview is usually about four hours. In that time, you get a pretty good idea of what a person is like. Some can put on a show for a while, but after a few hours, their true personality comes through.

Psychiatrists follow the medical standard, and evaluate everything from how they’ve coped with trauma, a death in the family, stress, or depression. And if they are on – or have been on – medication or have been hospitalized. The medical selection team scrutinizes their medical records. We have to prepare them mentally and physically, because in space, they lose bone mass. Calcium leaches out of their bones. They lose muscle mass. There’s equalized pressure through their whole body which creates fluid in the head, which swells. The latest thing we’ve noticed is there is some physiological changes in the shape of the eyeball. Astronauts have acuity change so their vision might go from 20/20 to 20/100ths. It’s due to microgravity.

Psychologists have their own interview book. We look at competencies. What kind of team player is this applicant? What are your worst teammate skills? We ask that to see if they understand themselves and if they’re aware of what they’re like. We want to know about the times you were a leader in something. But we all want to know if they’re good followers. If they can take direction. We also want to know what life-threatening events have occurred in their lives, and how they’ve reacted to it. We look for resiliency and empathy.

Once they’re hired, astronauts might not see a mission for 10 years, but the strain on the families while they’re training – being in and out of the home every other month – is typically harder to deal with than a six-month mission in space.

While on their mission, we have psychological conferences every two weeks. We ask how they’re sleeping, how the work load is, how the crew is interacting. Of course, there are disagreements in space, but they go through intensive conflict-resolution training, and it’s not typically a big issue. If you’re one of six people in a small lifeboat going around the earth, you pretty much work together because you depend on each other for survival and a successful mission. More often, the arguments occur with space agencies on the ground. I had an astronaut who was told to open up a panel and adjust switches three times. Each time, they questioned if he was doing it the right way. Finally, he filmed himself. The ground said: “Oh, something else must be wrong, then.” It’s those tensions that are more often front and centre.

We’ve had astronauts who have had a death in the family on Earth. We learned an important lesson from the Russians, who didn’t tell their cosmonaut right away. He was angry. Now, protocol is to let them know immediately, and we will set up taping – something to show at the funeral.

Because it’s such a high-pressure job, we also want people who are motivated and serious, but who can laugh at themselves. We have a guitar permanently on the space station, and we’ve sent flutes, and a keyboard (it had to be rigorously tested because if plastic burns it gives off poisonous gases). We’ve also sent up a didgeridoo, a wind instrument played by Indigenous Australians. Sometimes to lighten things up, astronauts play tricks on the ground people. One time, the cameras came on, and there was no one in the space station. They had Photoshopped themselves outside, peering into the space station. These are extremely bright, driven and competent people. But we also want normal. People who use humour in a productive way.

You might have come in a fighter pilot, a heralded physician or an acclaimed academic who ran a department. Now, you’re a baby astronaut, and you have to learn to be humble. We are not looking for perfect people. We are looking for human beings to fly in space and get along.

As told to Gayle MacDonald. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Walter Sipes is a former army helicopter pilot, who flew in Vietnam. He is a clinical psychologist who consults with NASA and the Canadian Space Agency, and backup support for Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. He is based in Tucson.

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