Wouldn’t you think that NASA would use the most rigorous psychological test to screen for tough minds in potential astronauts? How then does the soap-opera-esque debacle with astronaut Lisa Nowak (you know, the one in the love triangle who’s been arrested for attempted murder) even come to such a boiling point? That it *did* happen has brought into question NASA’s ability to monitor the psychological state of the people who go into space. In response to increased scrutiny, NASA has promised to review its psych testing practices. The only lucky break in this situation is that Lisa Nowak “snapped” on the ground, rather that in the confines of a space mission.
These tests are far from perfect, and can only really provide an estimation of someone’s mental state rather than an absolutely clear picture. And there exists quite a lot of doubt as to whether people who “pass the test” really make it through stressful situations and cope well enough to validate the tests’ results.
Available tests that claim to identify those personalities that will cope best in stressful situations are not validated, says Peter Marquis, who runs the medical unit at the British Antarctic Survey — another organization that sends people to remote locations for psychologically demanding scientific missions.
The number of people who have been into space or spent significant time in Antarctica is too small for rigorous analysis of the tests, he says. Psychologists can claim to predict who will deal with the challenge, but no one has followed up to see whether they actually came through it unscathed.
Additionally, psychological testing might not flag up problems in advance, simply because these problems might not exist before a given mission. There is evidence to suggest that spaceflight constitutes a significant stress that can alter one’s state of mind — what psychologists call a ‘transformational experience’.
There also seems to be subtle discouragement to seek help (as a NASA astronaut), since doing so may compromise your ability to be called on for another mission. As for Nowak’s actions, its possible that she formed an extremely strong bond with her love interest (a pilot on her mission), in reaction to a space expedition being similar to a life-threatening, life-altering experience.