From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]
NASA plan for unstable astronauts: Duct tape, tranquilizers
February 24, 2007
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (AP) — What would happen if an astronaut
became mentally unstable in space and, say, destroyed the ship’s
oxygen system or tried to open the hatch and kill everyone aboard?
That was the question after the apparent breakdown of Lisa Nowak,
arrested this month on charges she tried to kidnap and kill a woman
she regarded as her rival for another astronaut’s affections.
It turns out NASA has detailed, written procedures for dealing with a
suicidal or psychotic astronaut in space. The documents, obtained this
week by The Associated Press, say the astronaut’s crewmates should
bind his wrists and ankles with duct tape, tie him down with a bungee
cord and inject him with tranquilizers if necessary.
“Talk with the patient while you are restraining him,” the
instructions say. “Explain what you are doing, and that you are using
a restraint to ensure that he is safe.”
The instructions do not spell out what happens after that. But NASA
spokesman James Hartsfield said the space agency, a flight surgeon on
the ground and the commander in space would decide on a case-by-case
basis whether to abort the flight, in the case of the shuttle, or send
the astronaut home, if the episode took place on the international
The crew members might have to rely in large part on brute strength to
subdue an out-of-control astronaut, since there are no weapons on the
space station or the shuttle. A gun would be out of the question; a
bullet could pierce a spaceship and kill everyone. There are no stun
guns on hand.
“NASA has determined that there is no need for weapons at the space
station,” Hartsfield said.
NASA and its Russian counterpart drew up the checklist for the space
station in 2001. Hartsfield said NASA has a nearly identical set of
procedures for the shuttle, but he would not provide a copy Friday,
saying its release had not yet been cleared by the space agency’s
The space-station checklist is part of a 1,051-page document that
contains instructions for dealing with every possible medical
situation in space, including removing a tooth. Handling behavioral
emergencies takes up five pages.
The military has a similar protocol for restraining or confining
violent, mentally unstable crew members who pose a threat to
themselves or others in nuclear submarines or other dangerous
Although Nowak performed her duties with aplomb during a short visit
to the space station via the shuttle last July, and was not scheduled
to fly again, her arrest has led NASA to review its psychological
A mentally unstable astronaut could cause all kinds of havoc that
could endanger the three crew members aboard the space station or the
six or seven who typically fly aboard the shuttle.
Space station medical kits contain tranquilizers and anti-depression,
anti-anxiety and anti-psychotic medications. Shuttle medical kits have
anti-psychotic medication but not antidepressants, since they take
several weeks to be effective and shuttle flights last less than two
The checklist says astronauts can be restrained and then offered oral
Haldol, an anti-psychotic drug used to treat agitation and mania, and
Valium. If the astronaut will not cooperate, the drugs can be forcibly
given with a shot to the arm. Crew members are instructed to stay with
the tied-up astronaut to monitor vital signs.
Space station astronauts talk weekly via long-distance hookup to a
flight surgeon and every two weeks to a psychologist, so any
psychiatric disorder would probably be detected before it became so
serious that the astronaut had to be brought home, Hartsfield said.
No NASA astronaut at the space station has been treated in orbit with
anti-psychotic or antidepressant medications, and no NASA shuttle crew
member has required anti-psychotic medications, Hartsfield said.
Depression, feelings of isolation and stress are not unheard of during
long stays in space.
A couple of Soviet crews in past decades are believed to have
experienced psychological problems, and U.S. astronaut John Blaha
admitted feeling depressed at the start of a four-month stay at the
Soviets’ Mir space station more than a decade ago. Antidepressants
were not available.
“I think you have to battle yourself and tell yourself, ‘Look, this is
your new planet … and you need to enjoy this environment,”‘ Blaha
told the AP last week. “You sort of shift yourself mentally.”
During missions in 1985 and 1995, shuttle commanders put padlocks on
the spaceships’ hatches as a precaution since they did not know the
scientists aboard very well. Some crew members, called payload
specialists, are picked to fly for specific scientific or commercial
tasks and do not train as extensively with the other astronauts.
Would-be astronauts are carefully tested and screened to eliminate
those who are unstable. But unless they are bound for the space
station for a monthslong stay in orbit, they are not put through any
regular psychological tests after that.
Astronauts selected for the space station get a psychiatric assessment
six months and a month before launch.
Dr. Patricia Santy, a former NASA psychiatrist and author of the book
“Choosing the Right Stuff,” said there are no good studies of
astronauts’ stress levels or how they adapt psychologically to space.
U.S. astronauts at the space station keep a journal for a study by a
researcher. But Santy said the diaries will not help detect mental
“What astronaut is going to tell you they’re feeling homicidal?” she
asked. “They’re very conscious that if they say the wrong thing they
could get grounded.”
Astronaut James Reilly, who is flying on space shuttle Atlantis next
March, said it is unlikely a U.S. astronaut would lose it in space.
Space tourists who pay the Russians $20 million to go to the space
station are another matter, he said.
“I think we stand a greater chance of someone getting a little nuts
with the space tourists that fly occasionally because it’s less
rigorous,” Reilly said.