At Home in Space: Making the International Space Station feel like home

Earth from the International Space Station

The crew aboard the International Space Station (ISS) spends about six months away from family, friends and familiar surroundings. How do astronauts—and other people who work in extreme or isolated environments—cope with being far from home? (Credit: NASA)

At Home in Space, Canada's first psychosocial experiment on board the ISS, examines how multinational crews of astronauts adapt to living together in a shared—and often stressful—environment in space during long-duration missions. Dr. Phyllis J. Johnson of the University of British Columbia, principal investigator for the study, believes that astronauts develop a shared space culture as an adaptive strategy for handling cultural differences, and that together, astronauts create their own home in space. The research will also assess how meeting the challenges of the environment will affect such psychological characteristics as coping strategies, stress management, interpersonal and familial relationships, and personal values.

Astronaut Thomas Pesquet explains how crews cope with living in space

Credits: Canadian Space Agency, ESA, NASA

How the experiment works

Twelve astronauts will take part in the study, which requires them to fill out a questionnaire before, during and after their mission (they fill it out twice during their flight, preferably at a time when they are relaxed and have not had to conduct stressful tasks during the day, like a spacewalk). The questionnaire is designed to delve into individual and culturally related differences, family functioning, values, mechanisms for coping with stress, and also, how the astronauts grew from their experience after their flights. The participants also take pictures of their quarters to show how they customize their personal space, and to capture photos of celebrations taking place on the ISS.

Applications here on Earth

There are many communities on Earth that share some of the characteristics of a space capsule, and whose functioning could be improved by the findings of this experiment. One of these is the elderly, especially those in group housing: planned communities, assisted living centres or nursing homes, where residents are removed from their families and social circles, as well as from their former homes with their well-known layout, decor and mementos. Their living space is limited, as is their privacy, autonomy and control over their social and physical environment. Institutional residences for the elderly may be able to enhance the lives of their residents by learning more about how a group of people living together in a confined space can develop a common culture that enhances their bonding and morale, and how to make their unique environment feel more like home.

The findings will also apply to people living in remote, confined, and isolated environments (for instance, resource-extraction camps, oil rigs, long-voyage tankers, cargo ships, and communities in the Arctic and Antarctic), and to those whose employment is dangerous and requires periodic absences from family, like the military.

At Home in Space is led by Dr. Phyllis J. Johnson, University of British Columbia. Dr. Peter Suedfeld, University of British Columbia, is co-investigator for the study, which began in 2015 and is expected to be completed in 2019/2020. This research is funded and supported by the Canadian Space Agency.

Links of interest