How Will People Behave in Deep Space Disasters?

A journalist who has covered many terrestrial disasters responds to Elizabeth Bear’s “No Moon and Flat Calm.”

A leg floating in a tangle of wires on a space station.
Lisa Larson-Walker

A journalist and the author of The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes—and Why responds to Elizabeth Bear’s “No Moon and Flat Calm.”

In just over a decade, NASA hopes to send astronauts to Mars. Things will go wrong; they always do. But this time, the crew will be more isolated than astronauts have ever been. If they need help, it will take six months to get to them, which will be too long. If they need an answer to a simple question, it will take up to 45 minutes just to hear back from Mission Control. They will have only each other.

Elizabeth Bear’s story “No Moon and Flat Calm” delves into what these dynamics will mean for disasters in deep space. How will groups of humans behave when they encounter life-or-death situations 35 million miles from Earth?

The paradox of disasters is that they are highly surprising and also quite predictable, all at once. We don’t know exactly what will happen, but we do know that people will not behave like they do in movies. They will not panic, generally speaking. More often, they do the opposite, freezing up or slowing way down in a state sometimes referred to as “negative panic.”

People tend to revert to their most automatic habits. That’s why some of the passengers on the Aeroflot flight that recently crash-landed in Moscow took the time to retrieve their overhead luggage while evacuating the fiery plane. This has happened in many plane crashes, as people fall back on their normal habits in the most abnormal of circumstances.

At a fundamental level, the same rules will apply in deep space. We are human in both places. In “No Moon and Flat Calm,” five deep space safety engineers-in-training arrive at a space station after spending four months in claustrophobic transit. They are getting on each other’s last nerves, which seems realistic. Then strange things start happening. The place is deserted, for one thing. Alert lights start going off. Someone smells smoke.

And yet, a character named Mei repeatedly refuses to admit anything is wrong. “It’s just a drill,” she says. “It’s just a drill.”

At the same time, the rest of the group becomes instantly cooperative. When Marisol asks a colleague named Rico to do something, she is surprised to see that he does it without argument. “Apparently a real crisis made us temporary allies,” she notes to herself.

How does this compare with what happens in terrestrial disasters? We have lots of examples to look at, unfortunately. But many valuable case studies come from the World Trade Center on 9/11, where 15,410 people escaped the buildings and can tell us what they experienced.

That morning, for example, a man named Louis Lesce was working in a conference room on the 86th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, preparing for the day ahead. When a plane hit the tower, he felt the building shake dramatically, he told me for my book The Unthinkable. But he decided it must have been an earthquake, and he went back to work. This is a form of denial, the first phase of human response. It happened to Mei in Bear’s story—and it will happen in deep space when things first go wrong, too. With realistic, intense training, people can learn to move through this phase faster—but it will still slow them down.

Soon afterward, Lesce heard an explosion, and he saw tiles start to fall from the ceiling. This time, he couldn’t convince himself everything was fine, so he got up and went out into the hallway. He knew he wanted to talk to other people.

This is the second phase common to people in disasters: a highly social period, sometimes called milling, in which people form groups and deliberate about what to do next. On 9/11, at least 70 percent of survivors talked to other people before trying to leave, according to a federal study of the evacuation.

John Drury, a British social psychologist who studies crowd behavior in all kinds of contexts, has found that disasters create an instant bond among people. “Even if they started out quite fragmented,” Drury told me, “they came together and showed an enormous amount of solidarity.”

When people are told to evacuate before hurricanes or floods, they don’t just immediately start packing up their pets and their photo albums. No, they talk among themselves. Most check with four or more sources—family, TV news reporters, or neighbors—before deciding what to do, according to a study by sociologist Thomas Drabek.

That deliberative process can make or break you. The wisdom of your group matters. Lesce’s floor was relatively empty on the morning of 9/11, but he did find five other people. They walked toward the elevators but turned back when they encountered smoke. Then they gathered in an office, sat on the floor, and held an impromptu meeting to discuss their options.

After deliberating for a while, they tried breaking a window. Debris and smoke poured into the room. Another man summoned them into a stairwell, and they followed. It was dark and crowded, but most people treated each other with exquisite courtesy. “You know, you look kind of tired, buddy,” one man said to Lesce. “Let me hold your jacket.” Another man offered to carry his briefcase. As they descended, people passed bottles of water through the crowd. “I never saw so much drinking water. Bottles just kept coming up.”

After Lesce got home that night, he found a phone message waiting for him. Someone had found his briefcase in the stairwell and wanted to return it.

In other ways, deep space is different from Earth. The people are not entirely normal, for one thing. NASA tries to pick astronauts who are exceptionally resilient. In the past, NASA focused on finding highly adaptable, mentally stable, and physically fit individuals; now NASA also looks for people who will work well as a team, even under stress. These people tend to be agreeable, conscientious, and outgoing (but not overbearing). They don’t have to be perfect, but their strengths and weaknesses should complement one another. The research so far suggests that it helps create harmony if the team members share some of the same core values—even if they are very different in other ways.

Then the astronauts get intensive, highly realistic training, which is hands-down the best way to improve the odds of surviving any disaster. Astronauts practice emergency procedures, but they also learn to manage conflict, understand cultural differences, and communicate under strain. That means they may have a better chance at regulating the debilitating effects of fear and stress. That is a chemical advantage, literally, since spikes in stress hormones quickly degrade our ability to think and process new information.

So astronauts have some advantages over the rest of us. But deep space has a lot of atrocious drawbacks, too. Putting aside the lack of oxygen, the biggest problem might be the information vacuum. In every disaster I have ever covered, from a hurricane to a terrorist attack, the biggest problem is almost always communication: It is hard to know what is going on, and it can be very hard to tell others­—and that’s on Earth.

Right now, the astronauts on the International Space Station depend heavily on Mission Control for direction and information. But if the four-bedroom space station is like a well-equipped yacht, drifting 250 miles from home, a Mars mission will feel more like a tiny submarine, lost at sea after an apocalypse.

Then there are the cumulative effects of spending that much time in space, even before anything goes wrong. Right now, astronauts spend just six months on the International Space Station. Only four people have spent more than a year in space. (The record is held by a Russian who spent 437 days on the Mir space station in the mid-1990s.) A Mars mission will take more like 520 days, which will corrode astronauts’ physical and mental health. Space radiation can alter the functioning of the brain, boosting anxiety and degrading memory. Altered gravity can lead to nausea, muscle wasting, cancer, vision changes—and other bad things we still don’t understand.

We know even less about the psychological effects of a deep space mission. Much of what we do know comes from Mars-500, a 17-month experiment conducted in Moscow, starting in June of 2010. Six men from four countries agreed—incredibly enough—to walk into a simulated Mars shuttle, also known as a concrete building with a 775-square-foot living area, and stay in there for 520 days. There they lived, without sunrises or sunsets, fresh air, or real-time contact with friends and family. Unlike their comrades on the International Space Station, they could not get care packages, talk to psychological support personnel, or enjoy the view of Earth from outer space.

They exercised. They followed regimented schedules. They performed more than a hundred experiments, many on themselves. And they tried to stay sane. All the while, space agency officials from Europe and Russia monitored them with surveillance cameras.

No disasters occurred, happily. But we got a glimpse into some of the challenges of deep space travel. As the months went on, the crew became less active. Four of the six crew members experienced sleep problems, which tends to degrade performance and erode resilience.

Each week, the crew answered a survey about interpersonal conflicts. Interestingly, they reported five times as many conflicts with Mission Control as with one another. This also happens to teams working in Antarctica. Far from civilization, groups tend to create their own internal culture and become skeptical of outsiders. Some people withdraw from social interactions and lose expressiveness, taking on an aloofness known as the “Antarctic stare.”

On the Mars500 simulation, the conflicts spiked halfway through the ordeal, when the crew simulated a “landing” on Mars (which was in fact a pit of red sand near the simulator). This was a period of frequent and undoubtedly slow and stilted communication with Mission Control.

The vast majority of conflicts were reported by just two of the six crew members. A man referred to as “Crewmember E” reported fully half of all the conflicts. He was also the only crew member to report feelings of depression, a problem that got worse in the second half of the mission. The other crew member, reporting one-third of the conflicts, was the most sleep-deprived person on the ship.

What this tells us is that one stressed-out individual can strain an entire mission, as Rico did in Bear’s story, when he pushed to abandon the surviving population of Waystation Hab, saying: “Let’s get the hell off this hab. These people can take care of themselves.”

This risk of one agitated individual has implications for the future of deep space travel, particularly the commercial kind envisioned by private companies. Personally, if I got the chance to travel into space, I’d want to do it with the best astronauts in the world—and not with a rich guy who’d bought his way into orbit. Money cannot buy psychological resilience. And even if he’s not in command, he will be part of the group, and the group will matter. It always does.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.