Life in a Box

Excerpt / by Mary Roach /

In Packing for Mars, Mary Roach reveals that space exploration is really an exploration of what it means to be human. In this exclusive excerpt, she talks with former cosmonauts about the psychological challenge of living in space.

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A space station is a rangy monstrosity, a giant Erector Set assembled by a madman. But the living area inside the Mir core module, where cosmonauts Alexandr Laveikin and Yuri Romanenko spent six months together, would fit in a Greyhound bus. The sleep chambers are less like bedrooms than phone booths. They have no doors. Before I came to Moscow, I read an article in Quest: The Journal of Space History that said that Laveikin returned early from the mission due to “interpersonal issues and cardiac irregularity.”

I am sitting inside a mock-up of the module, at the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics, in Moscow. With me is Laveikin, who now runs the museum, and my interpreter Lena. Yuri Romanenko is on his way. I thought it would be interesting to talk with them inside the room that nearly drove them mad.

Laveikin looks little changed from his official portrait, where he conveys an impression of guileless good cheer. He kisses our hands as though we’re royalty. It’s neither affectation nor flirtation, just something that Russian men of his era were taught to do. He wears beige linen pants, an exuberant splash of cologne, and the cream-colored summer footwear I’ve been seeing all week on the feet of the men across from me in the Metro.

Laveikin waves hello to a narrow-girdled, suntanned man in jeans, with sunglasses hooked in the vee of his shirt collar. It’s Romanenko. He is cordial, but not a hand kisser. Cigarette smoke has roughed up his vocal cords. The two embrace. I count the seconds. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three. Whatever happened between them, it’s forgotten or forgiven. 

Sitting inside the mock-up, it is easy to imagine how a room this size, for that long, could set two men against each other. Romanenko points out that enclosed spaces are not a necessary ingredient for feeling trapped with someone. “Siberia is a big, big space here in Russia. But our hunters who go to taiga [forest] for half year, they’re trying to go on their own, just with a dog.” “Because if there are two or three of you go, it will be conflict.” 

“And this way,” Laveikin grins, “you can eat the dog at the end.” 

Psychologists use the term “irrational antagonism” to describe what happens between people isolated together for more than about six weeks. A 1961 Aerospace Medicine paper included a fine example, from the diary of a French anthropologist who spent four months in the Arctic with a Hudson’s Bay fur trader:

I liked Gibson as soon as I saw him, and from the moment of my arrival we got on astonishingly well. He was a man of poise and order, he took life calmly and philosophically; he had an endless budget of good stories. But as winter closed in around us, and week after week our world narrowed until it was reduced to the dimensions of a trap, … I began to rage inwardly and the very traits … which in the beginning had struck me as admirable, ultimately seemed to me detestable. The time came when I could no longer bear the sight of this man who was unfailingly kind to me. That calm which I had once admired I now called laziness, that philosophic imperturbability became in my eyes insensitiveness. The meticulous organization of his existence was maniacal old-manliness. I could have murdered him.

Other people are just one of the psychological hardships that space serves up. Laveikin says his 1987 stint on Mir was a hundred times harder than what he had expected. “It’s hard work, dirty work. Very noisy, very hot.” He had motion sickness for more than a week and no drugs to help him through it. He recalls turning to his commander during the first few days, saying, “Yuri. And we will stay here for half year?” To which Romanenko, using Laveikin’s nickname, replied, “Sasha, but people stay in prisons for ten years or more.” 

The bottom line is that space is a frustrating, unforgiving environment and you are trapped in it. If you’re trapped long enough, frustration metastasizes to anger. Anger wants an outlet and a victim.  An astronaut has three from which to choose: a crewmate, mission control, and himself. Astronauts try not to vent at each other because it makes a bad situation worse. There’s no bedroom door to slam or driveway to speed out of. You’re soaking in it. “Also,” says Jim Lovell, who spent two weeks on a loveseat with Frank Borman during Gemini VII, “you’re in a risky business and you depend on each other to stay alive. So you don’t antagonize the other guy.” 

Laveikin and Romanenko say they managed to avoid “frictions” because of the clear hierarchy afforded by rank. “Yuri is older than me and had experience of spaceflight,” Laveikin is saying.  “So naturally he was the leader, the psychological leader. I was following him. And I accepted this role. Our flight was calm.” 

This is difficult for me to believe. “You never got mad?” 

“Of course,” says Romanenko. “But mainly it was flight control center’s fault.” Romanenko went with option 2. Venting your frustration at mission control personnel is a time-honored astronaut tradition, known in psychology circles as “displacement.” Some time around the sixth week of a mission, says University of California, San Francisco, space psychiatrist Nick Kanas, astronauts begin to withdraw from their crewmates, become territorial, and displace their hostility for each other onto mission control. 

Astronaut Jim Lovell seemed to do most of his displacing on the Gemini VII nutritionist. “Note to Dr. Chance,” says Lovell to mission control at one point in the mission transcript. “It looks like we’re in a snow storm with crumbs from the beef sandwiches. At 300 dollars a meal! I think you can do better than this.” Lovell’s mission was only two weeks long. Was the extreme confinement of the tiny capsule accelerating the effects of confinement? Kanas knew of no formal studies, but he confirmed that the smaller the craft, generally speaking, the tenser the astronauts.

Romanenko retains some residual steam to this day. “People who prepared tasks for us, they have no idea what on board is like. Say you are running something here”—he turns to indicate the Mir control console— “and somebody gives you an order to switch on something else. They don’t understand it’s over on the other side, and I can’t leave what I do here and go there.” (This is why space agencies tend to use astronauts as “cap coms” —capsule communicators.)  According to the author Robert Zimmerman’s history of the Soviet space stations, Romanenko had, by the final stages of the mission (after Laveikin left), grown so “testy” with the flight control center that his crewmates took over all communications with the ground.

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