Astronaut Screening Process Sound, Former NASA Psychiatrist Says

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. (Image credit: AP Photo/ Redd Huber, Orlando Sentinel, Pool.)

NASA’sprocess for monitoring the physical and mental health of its Astronaut Corps issound, despite the stunning arrestof spaceflyer and missionspecialist Lisa Nowak this week, a former NASA psychiatrist said Wednesday.

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

NASA astronautcandidates are subjected to a pair of two-hour psychological screenings whenapplying to the Astronaut Corps, and receive annual check-ups by doctorstrained to spot any hint of unease or behavioral distress, Jeff Davis, NASAdirector of Space Life Sciences at the agency’s Johnson Space Center,said in a Wednesday press briefing. But astronauts are not required to undergoregular psychological exams on top of their normal health checkups, NASAofficials added.

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

NASA deputychief ShanaDale said in Wednesday’s briefing that the space agency is launching a review ofits psychological and medical requirements for astronauts.

Theannouncement comes one day after Orlando police charged Nowak, a 43-year-oldshuttle mission specialist, with attemptedfirst-degree murder, kidnapping and other counts related to an allegedMonday confrontation with U.S. Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman. Police saidNowak drove the 900 miles (1,500 kilometers) from her Houston home to theOrlando airport, where she confronted Shipman, whom the astronaut believed tobe a rival for the affections of NASA spaceshuttlepilot William Oefelein.

Dale saidNowak, whom authorities released on bailTuesday, has been placed on a 30-day leave and pulled from NASA’sactive astronaut duty roster.

Support systems available

NASA officialssaid Tuesday that astronauts, like all civil servants, can draw on a host ofmedical and behavioral support services.

“We havean employee program where anybody that is in any stressful situation—adeath in the family, divorce and so on—can seek employee assistance,[like] counseling, that is available to any civil servant or anyoneworking,” said Bob Cabana, a NASA astronaut and deputy director of theJohnson Space Center, the agency’s Houston-based astronaut trainingfacility.

Cabanastressed that NASA astronauts are a tight-knit group that draw support fromeach other, even as they draw on family and friends.

“Thegeneral feeling in the corps is that we look out for one another,” Cabanasaid of astronauts seeking medical assistance, adding that there is no stigmaattached to those who do so.

But McGuireconceded that just because a support base exists, does not make necessarily anattractive option for some astronauts, pilots or other high-performingprofessionals whom may believe that seeking medical assistance could have futurerepercussions.

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

Gaining apilot or spaceflyer's trust as a physician is thekey, McGuire said.

McGuire saidthat during his term as NASA’s chief spaceflight psychiatrist, heencountered cases of post-flight malaise, especially given the intensive trainingand rigorous schedule in the years between an astronaut’s selection for amission and the subsequent spaceflight.

Post-missionmalaise does not affect all pilots, though it can be drawn out or fade quicklyin those it does affect, McGuire added.

“I wouldimagine that there is somewhat of a letdown following a mission, just as therewould be for anyone who has planned for and completed a significantevent," said Jack Stuster, a NASA contractorinvolved in an experiment reviewing journals kept by ISS astronauts duringtheir missions to track their mental states. "It might be more acute forastronauts because their flight possibilities are so limited and there's such along preparation time."

Nowak herselftouched on the inherent sacrifice the life as an astronaut entails as sheprepared for her July 2006 spaceflight, but stressed that the payoff of humanspace exploration warranted the personal demand.

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

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

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

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

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

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Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.