Astronaut Screening Process Sound, Former NASA Psychiatrist Says
Astronaut Lisa Nowak appears with her attorney Donald Lykkebak, right, before judge Mike Murphy at an Orlando Corrections facility on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2007. Nowak was making a first appearance on attempted kidnapping, attempted vehicle burglary with battery and destruction of evidence and battery charges.
Credit: AP Photo/ Redd Huber, Orlando Sentinel, Pool.

NASA’s process for monitoring the physical and mental health of its Astronaut Corps is sound, despite the stunning arrest of spaceflyer and mission specialist Lisa Nowak this week, a former NASA psychiatrist said Wednesday.

Terence McGuire, NASA’s lead manned spaceflight psychiatrist for 36 years until the mid-1990s, said the initial screening process and medical care levels for astronauts should be able to catch problems among them before they become a serious concern. That makes Nowak’s Monday arrest by Florida police all the more perplexing, he added.

NASA astronaut candidates are subjected to a pair of two-hour psychological screenings when applying to the Astronaut Corps, and receive annual check-ups by doctors trained to spot any hint of unease or behavioral distress, Jeff Davis, NASA director of Space Life Sciences at the agency’s Johnson Space Center, said in a Wednesday press briefing. But astronauts are not required to undergo regular psychological exams on top of their normal health checkups, NASA officials added.

“I think that to put another layer on that, and say, well, every year we’re supposed to have a psychological evaluation, I think that’s gilding the lily,” McGuire said. “They should be able to get everything that they need … I don’t really think that they need something better.”

NASA deputy chief Shana Dale said in Wednesday’s briefing that the space agency is launching a review of its psychological and medical requirements for astronauts.

The announcement comes one day after Orlando police charged Nowak, a 43-year-old shuttle mission specialist, with attempted first-degree murder, kidnapping and other counts related to an alleged Monday confrontation with U.S. Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman. Police said Nowak drove the 900 miles (1,500 kilometers) from her Houston home to the Orlando airport, where she confronted Shipman, whom the astronaut believed to be a rival for the affections of NASA space shuttle pilot William Oefelein.

Dale said Nowak, whom authorities released on bail Tuesday, has been placed on a 30-day leave and pulled from NASA’s active astronaut duty roster.

Support systems available

NASA officials said Tuesday that astronauts, like all civil servants, can draw on a host of medical and behavioral support services.

“We have an employee program where anybody that is in any stressful situation—a death in the family, divorce and so on—can seek employee assistance, [like] counseling, that is available to any civil servant or anyone working,” said Bob Cabana, a NASA astronaut and deputy director of the Johnson Space Center, the agency’s Houston-based astronaut training facility.

Cabana stressed that NASA astronauts are a tight-knit group that draw support from each other, even as they draw on family and friends.

“The general feeling in the corps is that we look out for one another,” Cabana said of astronauts seeking medical assistance, adding that there is no stigma attached to those who do so.

But McGuire conceded that just because a support base exists, does not make necessarily an attractive option for some astronauts, pilots or other high-performing professionals whom may believe that seeking medical assistance could have future repercussions.

“Pilots, in general, tend to stay away from medical people,” said McGuire, a former U.S. Air Force flight surgeon. “[Flight surgeons] are one of the only groups that can stop them from doing what they truly love. They have the capacity to ground them.”

Gaining a pilot or spaceflyer's trust as a physician is the key, McGuire said.

McGuire said that during his term as NASA’s chief spaceflight psychiatrist, he encountered cases of post-flight malaise, especially given the intensive training and rigorous schedule in the years between an astronaut’s selection for a mission and the subsequent spaceflight.

Post-mission malaise does not affect all pilots, though it can be drawn out or fade quickly in those it does affect, McGuire added.

“I would imagine that there is somewhat of a letdown following a mission, just as there would be for anyone who has planned for and completed a significant event," said Jack Stuster, a NASA contractor involved in an experiment reviewing journals kept by ISS astronauts during their missions to track their mental states. "It might be more acute for astronauts because their flight possibilities are so limited and there's such a long preparation time."

Nowak herself touched on the inherent sacrifice the life as an astronaut entails as she prepared for her July 2006 spaceflight, but stressed that the payoff of human space exploration warranted the personal demand.

“It’s a sacrifice for our own personal time and our families and the people around us,” Nowak said in a NASA interview. “But I do think it’s worth it because if you don’t explore and take risks and go do all these things then everything will stay the same. People aren’t like that. We want to explore and expand and know more about the place around us.”

Stuster thinks it's unwise to link Nowak's behavior to her experience at NASA.

"We didn't hear about the dozens of other cases in Florida last week where people behaved oddly who weren't associated with NASA," Stuster said. "This incident really doesn't have anything to do with NASA. It has to do with human behavior and people's reactions to circumstances."

Stuster is the author of “Bold Endeavors: Lessons from Polar and Space Exploration”, a book that compares and contrasts the experiences of explorers, shipwreck survivors, astronauts and others who have endured long-duration confinement and isolation.

"Astronauts are far better prepared psychologically and technically," he said, "than explorers of the past."

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