Space Psychology: Theory to Practice

As part of my master’s program, I developed a master’s level course in space psychology to further my personal development and for the benefit of future graduate students to come.

The field of psychology has been an interest of mine for quite some time. Throughout my years working with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), I heard rumors of the lack of psychology within astronaut training program, however I didn’t have firsthand knowledge on the subject. Over the summer I had an opportunity to speak with several astronauts about their training experiences and asked them specifically about psychological training. I was shocked as they recalled minimal psychological training leading up to space missions. To them, the only resemblance of psychology was communication with ground-based psychiatrists throughout the missions. This seemed odd and after investigating a bit I discovered the psychologists and psychiatrists were preparing them without calling it “psychology.” Although there was a period of time where behavioral health was not included in the U.S. space program, the topic is prevalent and highly researched today. These findings fueled the development of this course and my drive to learn more about the past research and where there may be room for further development. Little did I know that this revelation and masters level curriculum development would take me down a path of incredible insight, learning, and opportunity. 

In the development of this course, Space Psychology: Theory to Practice, I worked with subject mater experts in the fields of psychology, psychiatry, education, and aerospace to develop a comprehensive curriculum surrounding the topic of space psychology. The course was designed to educate students on the psychological and psychiatric challenges involved in spaceflight, training, and extreme environments. Students learn about cultural and interpersonal challenges that develop in groups, isolation, and long-duration space missions, as well as, explore parallels between astronaut training, expedition education and space tourism. Lastly, the students spend time examining the relevance and inclusion of art in spaceflight and extreme environments.

The underlying goal with this curriculum is to open students to the world of psychology within the space industry and gain a better understanding of the challenges psychologists and astronauts face throughout the various phases of their careers. Should you have any interest in learning more about this course, feel free to reach out and I would be happy to discuss it further.

Here are some sample readings from the course:

  • Anderson, C. (2015). The ordinary spaceman: From boyhood dreams to astronaut. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press.
  • Astronaut tells of Basner, M., Dinges, D., Mollicone, D., Savelev, I., Ecker, A., Di Antonio, A. (2014). Psychological and behavioral challenges during confinement in a 520-day simulated interplanetary mission to Mars. PLoS One, 9(3), e93298. doi:10.1371/journal.pone. 0093298.
  • Finney, B. (1991). Scientists and seamen. In A.A. Harrison, Y.A. Clearwater, & C. P. McKay (Eds.). From Antarctica to outer space. New York, NY: Springer.
  • Kanas, N. (2015). Humans in space: The psychological hurdles. New York, NY: Springer.
  • Kanas, N., & Manzey, D. (2008). Space psychology and psychiatry (2nd ed.). El Segundo, CA: Microcosm Press.
  • Leon, G. (2005). Men and women in space. Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine, 76(6, Suppl.), B84-B88.
  • Vakoch, D., & National Aeronautics and Space Administration. (2012). Psychology of space exploration: Contemporary research in historical perspective. Washington, DC: National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Featured Photo Credit: NASA

About the author

Erin Bonilla

I am a curriculum developer, technical trainer, communicator, and adventurer with a passion for human space exploration and training. I am actively involved in science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics (STEAM) educational outreach efforts and advocate for the deep connection between the arts and science education.

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