Therapy in Outer Space… Literally

If you thought telephone therapy was going too far from the human touch, wait until you read this: Astronauts will receive computerized therapy during space flights under a new NASA project, called the Virtual Space Station, which gets underway next month with some terrestrial-bound clinical trials on civilians in Boston.

The cost of the program is just under two-million dollars.

Space flight can be stressful, isolating, and depressing. The job is dangerous and comes with tremendous pressure. Colleagues may spend days, weeks, or even months living in extremely close quarters without a break, and are separated from friends and family for extended periods. And the normal comforts and coping skills of home–a delicious meal, a walk in the sunshine, a long bath, or a night on the town, are unavailable.

The new project is sponsored by the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, and will provide a recorded video therapist to provide the popular therapy called “problem-solving treatment,” helping astronauts identify depression, its causes, and possible solutions they can implement while in space flight, before symptoms grow too intense and interfere with their mission. Then astronauts can type in a description of their problems and feelings and the video therapist responds. Astronauts can also practice conflict resolution with role-playing, and will have access to virtual psychology textbooks.

Twenty-nine current and former astronauts have been consulted for the project, but it has great potential for many populations, such as scientists or soldiers at remote outposts, or anyone who has physical or emotional difficulty getting to appointments in person.

The program comes in response partly to past experiences. In 1985, a mission on Russia’s Salyut 7 space had to aborted when the commander become depressed and lethargic. Three years earlier, another Salyut mission was almost abandoned due to conflicts between two astronauts.

© Copyright 2008 by Daniel Brezenoff, Licensed Clinical Social Worker. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Savannah

    October 27th, 2008 at 11:24 AM

    I am sure these astronauts need the therapy but is this really the best way to be spending US tax dollars right now? I completely get the need for therapy as I am sure it is difficult to be in such remote situations and so far removed from family and friends but perhaps this is not the best time to be advertising programs such as this. Are these programs privately funded or are the tax payers coughing up the money for it?

  • daniel b

    October 27th, 2008 at 11:56 AM

    At a cost of two million dollars, this program – which could save lives (and lots more money if it prevents just one mission failure) – comes to about a penny per taxpayer.

  • Miranda

    October 27th, 2008 at 4:18 PM

    This is a better way of spending taxpayers money than financing “sling mud at me ” election campaigns. Astronauts go through rigourous training and they are just ordinary people most of the time. When you go through military academy,you are a little more prepared mentally for separation than when you are an astronaut. Anyways this is a really good step forward for therapists.

  • Savannah

    October 28th, 2008 at 1:35 PM

    Sure that there are many benefits to this but I think that for the millions of us who are not astronauts there are better programs to be funded. Just my opinion.

  • Diane

    October 29th, 2008 at 12:50 AM

    Education is a priority and so is health care. What about the millions of homeless?? Tax payers money should not help in this regard

  • Nikki

    October 29th, 2008 at 8:17 AM

    Thanks Diane! I totally agree with you on this one. I knwo that these jobs can be dangerous and probably lonely but come one! They know all of this before signing up for the program right?

  • daniel b

    October 29th, 2008 at 9:09 AM

    Nikki and Daine: If one opposes the space program, I can understand opposing this project. But if you are going to send human beings into space for months, why would anyone concerned about mental health want them not to have psychological support? This is one of the hardest jobs on the planet; if an astronaut is anxious or depressed, what do you suggest?

  • daniel b

    October 29th, 2008 at 9:10 AM

    Also, Diane, you say: healthcare is a priority. This *is* healthcare – is it not? Shouldn’t government employees have mental health benefits as part of their health care?

  • James

    October 30th, 2008 at 4:11 AM

    I can see both sides of the argument. By one token you think these people should be trained and prepared to handle these kinds of stresses; on the other hand I guess we never really know the ways that we will experience different things until we are right there in the thick of things.

  • Hudson

    October 31st, 2008 at 3:05 AM

    This is a fine program for those who choose to use their God given intellect and talents for the betterment and security of our country. I would not take away any treatment or comfort that might get them through what must surely be tough times being so far away from home and families for extended periods of time. These men and women are serving their nation in an honorable as well as educational manner and we all ought to provide for them the best way that we know how. I do, like one reader, assume that they are all so well provided for and prepared for this when they go into service but you cannot always plan for the intangibles and there must be an effective program in place to help the deal with whatever issues and emotions arise.

  • jeni

    November 4th, 2008 at 10:26 AM

    I think this is a great program for the astronauts. I must admit I am shocked at the cost of this is. I do understand that they need some kind of contact, communication, etc from the outside world. We don’t really know what these astronauts have to go through, especially for months without any family. I believe anything that can help these astronauts gain some sanity is a good thing.

  • musta must

    November 4th, 2008 at 10:33 AM

    it takes a very courageous person to go up and leave their families for such a long time.

  • tecumseh

    November 4th, 2008 at 12:59 PM

    In terms of cost, this program is extremely low budget. Two million dollars? That’s what Tom Cruise gets paid for a fifth of a movie. It’s half a season for an all-star baseball player. It’s the price of the yearly ammo for one platoon in Iraq. It’s less than a penny per American. Think of this as an EAP program for astronauts. Then check out what your employing company spends yearly on its EAP program.

  • Jason

    November 9th, 2008 at 5:23 AM

    I can’t imagine a day without meeting my friends family or other people. I might lose my mind.

  • Oliver

    November 20th, 2008 at 5:27 AM

    Are people in these remote situations being offered things like online therapy? That seems to be growing in popularity and may be useful for them.

  • Dr. Arthur Becker-Weidman

    November 22nd, 2008 at 9:15 AM

    In Ontario, Canada, mental health care (evaluation and treatment by a psychiatrist and others) is provided via a video link. The consulting room in the remote location has a camera and tv as does the mental health professional’s location. This is provided by the government though their health care system.

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