What's missing in space: storms, crowds, soda

US space-endurance recordholders return, bringing better understanding of the mental limits of flight.

When it comes to long months in space, the "right stuff" for astronauts is a lot less heroic fodder for movies than being able to survive the little things – like the way a crewmember chews his food, the unshowered feeling, or peculiar longings for tortillas or traffic jams.

With Monday's scheduled touchdown of shuttle Endeavour, astronauts Daniel Bursch and Carl Walz set a record for longest US space flight: 194 days. With their record comes increasing understanding of how modern explorers cope – or not – in far from earth, but still under the pull of earth-bound psychology.

While the Russians have long sent cosmonauts into space for a year at a time, NASA still tries to keep its astronauts up for no more than six months or 180 days.

Asked last week if they'd be interested in going for the world record of more than a year in space, Mr. Bursch and Mr. Walz were emphatically not interested. "I'm ready to come home," said Mr. Bursch. "Without a shadow of a doubt ... the biggest challenge has been mental and psychological."

Like most astronauts, the two say they've missed their families the most – but ranking just behind that are their cravings for pizza and sodas and showers.

Alan Bean, who in 1969 was on the second mission to the moon and later spent 59 days on the Skylab in 1973, says he simply missed "hanging out with groups of people." And he describes how, on his return to earth, he'd "go to the mall and get an ice cream just to have people all around me. I was never like that before."

Likewise, Shannon Lucid, the previous US spaceflight record holder at 188 days, says her earthbound proclivities changed, too. After six months of sponge baths, she says she no longer craves a shower a day.

The world record for space flight is held by Valery Polyakov, a Russian doctor who lasted 438 days on Mir in 1994 and 1995. Other astronauts describe him as jovial and mishievous to an extreme. One of his pranks involved a distress call to his ground crew over a buildup of ear wax. It prompted a flurry of questions, consultations with specialists, and a special shipment of medical equipment on the next supply ship.

But Mr. Polyakov's demeanor meant much to Norman Thagard, who spent 115 days in space as the first American to work aboard Mir. Though he only overlapped with Polyakov for a six-day crew-change, Mr. Thagard says: "That's what boosted my spirit about a long flight. I thought, if this fellow looks as good as he does and is in as good of spirits as he is, then I can do it."

One of the hardest aspects of space flight for Thagard was the down time – and there was plenty on the aging, malfunctioning Mir. "It's best, in an environment like that, to keep busy. I spent a lot of time looking out the window at earth," he says.

Even so, Mir never felt small or cramped to Thagard – it was roughly the volume of 3-1/2 school buses and routinely held three crew members. Eventually, the new International Space Station will have enough living space for a crew of seven.

NASA spends a lot of time thinking about how best to mentally support astronauts on long flights. Favorite books, movies, and music are stocked on board, and magazines and newspapers are uplinked daily. Extras such as paper turkeys and foldout Christmas trees are also included to take some of the loneliness out of the holidays.

To make sure families stay connected, videos of the kids' soccer games and band concerts are uplinked to the space station. Packages from home – brownies and finger paintings included – are added to routine resupply shuttles. In addition, astronauts can call home once every two weeks on a videophone, and can e-mail home anytime.

"It's about connectedness," says Al Holland, chief of psychiatry for NASA. "All these things make reintroduction easier." To that end, if there is a death in the family or a child fails history, the astronauts are told.

Humans crave variety, and being with the same two people for months can be a strain – no matter how friendly they are. "If you think of taking a family trip and never getting out of the car, you can imagine that some problems are going to crop up – no matter how well you get along," Bursch said last week in a press conference from space.

Indeed, the first NASA-sponsored study of the psychological effects of long-duration space flight, released in 2000, showed that both astronauts and cosmonauts aboard Mir had difficulty with isolation. It often came out in interactions with mission control. "It's kind of like when you have problems with your boss at work, you may come home and yell at your spouse or kick the cat," says Nick Kanas, the University of California psychiatrist who authored the study.

Jerry Linenger, who spent 132 days aboard Mir in 1997, calls his experience "one heck of a psychological challenge." He says he found mental remove by floating to a window and watching the world go by. "It's just an awesome experience to look down and see the earth all covered with blue and white. It's definitely God's creation."

Bean says he wouldn't trade his time in space for anything, but appreciates life on earth much more. In space, there are two conditions: sunny and pitch black. "I'd often look down at Houston and see it raining and wish I was there. In space, it's the same day after day."

Increasing the length of flights isn't a bad idea, says Joseph Kerwin, who spent 28 days on Skylab in 1973. "If our goal is to someday explore the solar system or colonize the moon, then we need to know what the limits are."

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