In space travel, every eventuality must be prepared for: even the prospect of an astronaut experiencing a psychological breakdown.
SpaceX launched its historic Inspiration4 mission on Wednesday, blasting its all-civilian crew into low-Earth orbit where they will circle around the planet onboard the Resilience Crew Dragon spacecraft for three days. According to Axios space journalist Miriam Kramer, the crew has been equipped with restraints and sedatives in the rare event one of the non-professional astronauts has a breakdown in space.
“They also have to prepare for worst-case scenarios like someone on the crew becoming a danger to themselves or others,” Kramer said on episode three of the Axios podcast How it Happened: The Next Astronauts. “There are zip ties and medication on board in case somebody needs to be sedated.”
Two of the civilian astronauts onboard the spacecraft — Hayley Arceneaux, a physician assistant from the St Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and Chris Sembroski, a data engineer and Air Force veteran — have also been specifically trained on how to deploy these restaining tools, according to The Atlantic.
Human spaceflight isn’t just physically demanding, being off-world can be a psychological strain too. Sensory deprivation, the constant threat of danger, cramped conditions, and a totally alien environment can understandably put pressure on an astronaut’s psyche. As such, professional astronauts trained by nations' space agencies undergo psychological training and testing as part of their preparation for space travel.
The Inspiration4 crew has had over six months of intense training and received specialized psychological preparation, but this is significantly less than what professional astronauts receive at NASA. It can take up to two years to train to be an astronaut, on top of the time it takes to get the relevant qualifications and experience required.
However, even NASA’s highly trained professionals take similar precautions to SpaceX. Internal documents obtained by the Associated Press (AP) in 2007 showed that NASA has a detailed set of written procedures that explain how to deal with suicidal or psychotic astronauts in space. In this event, the crew must bind the astronaut's wrists and ankles with duct tape, then use a bungee cable to tie them down. They are also advised to inject the individual with tranquilizers if need be.
"Talk with the patient while you are restraining him," the instructions read, per AP. "Explain what you are doing and that you are using a restraint to ensure that he is safe."
All of this, however, is strictly precautionary. Fortunately, the Inspiration4 crew appears to be confident that this safeguard won't be needed.
"Nobody’s gonna snap that way, at least not that we’ve seen to date,” crewmember Sembroski told Kramer on the Axios podcast. “This is literally just, ‘OK, we have this equipment on board, well it’s for that less than one percent chance of somebody needing a little bit of extra support just to maintain the safety of the crew.'”