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‘Ad Astra’ and the Science (Fiction) of Unstable Astronauts

The new Brad Pitt movie features a familiar trope: people going mad as they explore deep space. Does science back up these depictions, or is it just a Hollywood invention?

20th Century Fox/Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

As Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride floats through space toward an unresponsive research vessel 40 minutes into Ad Astra, his spacewalk companion, Captain Tanner, says something that should trigger an alarm for fans of sci-fi films. “Your dad is the reason a lot of us are doing what we’re doing,” Tanner says. “He went farther than anybody. He was the best of us.”

Tanner’s testimonial makes Roy’s father, Space Command icon Clifford McBride, sound a lot like Interstellar’s Dr. Mann (Matt Damon), who’s described as “remarkable” three times in the Nolan brothers’ screenplay for the 2014 film. As Dr. Brand explains to Cooper, Mann is “The best of us. … He inspired 11 people to follow him on the loneliest journey in human history.”

In Interstellar, that lonely journey takes its toll. When Cooper visits the planet Mann has been marooned on and wakes the scientist from suspended animation, Mann sobs and caresses Cooper. “Pray you never learn just how good it can be to see another face,” he says. He soon sadly recounts how he’d had to deactivate his robot companion, KIPP. “I thought I was alone before I shut him down,” he says.

As we learn later, Mann’s solitary vigil made him so desperate, delusional, and disturbed that “the best of us” snapped. He falsified data about the habitability of his planet to make it more appealing as a potential home for humanity, and when relief arrives, he tries to kill Cooper, strand the rest of the rescue team, and escape on his own. Years of isolation have warped his psyche enough to turn a selfless hero homicidal and make him put his own survival ahead of humankind’s.

Small wonder, then, that the legendary Cliff McBride also succumbs to the stress of space travel as he leads the “Lima Project,” a search for extraterrestrial intelligence that takes him to Neptune by way of Jupiter and Saturn. Some combination of physical confinement, separation from Earth, and failure to find ET causes McBride to break down, too. Unlike Mann, his sin isn’t what he’s willing to do to return to Earth, but what he’s willing to do to stay billions of miles away, where he can continue to scan the lifeless universe.

In an old, classified communication that Roy accesses on Mars, McBride phones home to report a tragedy—namely, that he’d intentionally deactivated the life-support system in a section of his own research station, killing faithful team members along with alleged mutineers. “Here on the edge of our solar system, some of our people have been unable to handle the psychological distress of being so far away from home,” he says. “They desired to return to Earth, and I could not permit that.” By the time Roy reaches him, he’s killed the whole crew, and he subsequently sets himself adrift in the vacuum rather than go home empty-handed.

Bad dads are endemic to movies set in space; as my colleague Chris Ryan wrote almost five years before Ad Astra premiered, “When movie characters go into space … the only way to get back to Earth is to confront the fact that their dad was a chump.” Maybe it makes sense that emotionally distant dads would be predisposed to become physically distant dads; as Cliff confides to Roy, “I never cared about you or your mother or any of your small ideas. … I never once thought about home.” What’s somewhat more surprising is that so many movies about space feature unhinged astronauts, whose “right stuff” can’t protect them from the Bernie Taupin Principle: “It’s lonely out in space.” Ad Astra, Interstellar, and other sci-fi films’ portrayals of unstable space explorers don’t quite track with what we know about how humans hold up in the heavens. Then again, no human has traveled farther than the moon or stayed in space continuously for longer than 14 months, so what we know is still limited.

The history of on-screen space psychopathy dates back at least to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stanley Kubrick’s seminal sci-fi film featured a similarly seminal antagonist in HAL 9000, a ship’s computer whose condition gradually degrades on a trip to Jupiter. Eventually, it tries to kill the crew. Although the film doesn’t clarify the cause of the computer’s killing spree, Arthur C. Clarke’s novel explains that HAL went haywire because his mandate to relay information accurately conflicted with his orders to withhold the true purpose of the mission from Frank Poole and David Bowman. By killing the crew, the computer could clear up the problem. (So much for the First Law of robotics.)

In Solaris—both the 1972 film and the 2002 remake—scientists studying the eponymous planet start to hallucinate, lose their grip on reality, and in some cases, die by suicide. Their visions are projections of the planet’s native intelligence, but their symptoms are consistent with depictions of other fictional astronauts flying off the handle without any alien intervention. In Armageddon (1998), genius driller Rockhound contracts a case of “space dementia,” which may be a Muse song but isn’t a technical term. (Neither is “space madness”; sorry, Star Trek and Ren & Stimpy.) Rockhound loses control of his faculties and starts spraying bullets, forcing the rest of the crew to duct tape him to a chair (an actual NASA contingency plan).

In Sunshine (2007), both Captain Pinbacker on the Icarus I and psychiatrist Searle on the Icarus II are entranced by the sun; Pinbacker abandons his mission, believing the sun is sending him messages from God, and Searle is so obsessed with staring at the sun that he commits a crispy suicide by exposing himself to the star’s full illumination. In Ad Astra, Cliff also seems to believe he has a divine purpose, and while Roy is comparatively collected, he still shows the strain of his much shorter time away from Earth. “Zero-G, and the extended duration of the journey, is affecting me both physically and mentally,” Pitt intones as an increasingly wild-eyed McBride makes a solitary 79-day flight from Mars to Neptune. (Side note: Space propulsion must have made major strides since the Lima Project left, because Roy’s trip seems pretty routine.) Ironically, another Damon character, The Martian’s Mark Watney, is a rare exception to the rule; maybe botany—a natural NASA therapy—is the key to keeping space sadness at bay.

Although Ad Astra director James Gray originally intended to make his film hyper-realistic, he later amended his target from realism to plausibility. The movie doesn’t always meet that more modest standard. For instance, the elder McBride’s case of space psychosis stems in part from finding that no nonhuman intelligence exists in the universe, but it seems extremely unlikely that a search conducted from our solar system could ever—let alone in the “near future”—conclusively establish the absence of life.

“We have the technological know-how to search the entire galaxy, all the time, for radio signals from other civilizations,” says Dr. Douglas Vakoch, a psychologist and astrobiologist who serves as the president of METI, an organization that creates and transmits interstellar messages intended for extraterrestrials. “We’re only lacking the funding to build and operate the telescopes. It’s an immense leap, though, to go from scanning our own galaxy, the Milky Way, to conducting a comprehensive survey of the entire universe.”

Granted, we’ve gone from not knowing about any exoplanets to detecting thousands within the past 30 years, so maybe bigger breakthroughs are in store. But the ones we’ve identified are a drop in the bucket of our own galaxy, and there’s no known method for systematically searching stars in other galaxies for exoplanets. Even when we can infer an exoplanet’s presence, it’s usually much too distant to study in detail (especially if it’s small enough to be habitable), and it’s difficult to confirm or rule out the presence of life solely by studying a planet’s atmospheric signature from afar. For those reasons, says Dr. Elisabeth Newton, an MIT astronomer who studies the physics of stars and exoplanets, “I do not know of a conceivable future technology that could scan the universe and establish a total lack of life.”

Clara Sousa-Silva, a molecular astrophysicist at MIT, adds, “It is the height of hubris to presume you’ll know that a planet is uninhabited because it isn’t shouting across the galaxy.” McBride seems to have hubris in spades, but his planning is poor. Sousa-Silva says interference from the sun in Earth’s neighborhood—Ad Astra’s stated reason for sending scientists to Neptune—is unlikely to hinder the search for ET, and even if it did, Neptune is well within the heliosphere (with a magnetosphere that’s stronger than Earth’s). “Ultimately, we are unlikely to find life with complete certainty, but we certainly don’t have to go to Neptune to do it,” she concludes. “McBride should have just gone home and used a large ground-based telescope, or a space telescope orbiting the Earth, so he could carefully and patiently study exoplanet atmospheres. My expert opinion is that Clifford McBride died for nothing.” Harsh.

In the case of the scientific search for extraterrestrial life, Ad Astra starts with a real-life endeavor and distorts it almost beyond recognition. That’s more or less how Hollywood has handled the depiction of astronaut alienation—as in estrangement from Earth and its psychological side effects, not facehuggers and chestbursters—in the aforementioned films.

Dr. Alexandra Whitmire is the deputy element scientist of the Human Factors and Behavioral Performance Element in the NASA Human Research Program (deep breath), which she says “supports and conducts research to help characterize and mitigate the psychological and human-factors risks of future exploration missions.” The Human Research Program is designed to ensure that there won’t be any Pinbackers, Manns, or McBrides when humans do begin to venture on interplanetary missions.

Whitmire and her colleagues study the “cognition, mood, well-being, and psychosocial adaptation” of astronauts on the International Space Station. In Earth’s orbit, where most ISS residents stay for six months at a time, astronauts are spared some of the more physically and psychologically draining demands of a mission to Mars or beyond, including years-long mission durations, cramped quarters, delayed communication with Earth, and higher radiation exposure (which could cause cognitive damage). Thus, the HRP conducts complementary research in ground-based locations, or “analogs,” that allows the scientists to simulate some of those stressors.

At the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, the HRP operates a facility called the Human Exploration Research Analog where a team of four “astronaut-like individuals” participates in a 45-day simulated spaceflight mission, complete with scant space and privacy, realistic workloads, and lengthy communication delays. The HRP also funds research in Antarctic stations that provides data on extended isolation and confinement, and it teams up on research projects with international space agencies; the Russian space agency owns an isolation chamber that supports stays of as long as 520 days.

Although these efforts have proved fruitful, surface simulations and even ISS observations aren’t the real thing. NASA conducts rodent testing to assess the effects of deep-space radiation, but research on rodents isn’t necessarily transferable to humans. Recruiting truly “astronaut-like” participants for studies on the ground is a daunting challenge. Moreover, Whitmire points out, on a real-life, long-range mission, “Crews will not be isolated, confined, separated, irradiated, and in altered gravity one or two stressors at a time. These exposures will happen simultaneously, and understanding the potential synergistic effects remains a challenge.” Plus, it’s one thing to go through the motions knowing that safety and fresh air are right outside the door, and another to travel so far from Earth that it can barely be seen, and that even if someone at home hears you scream, the sound will take minutes or hours to reach them.

As Whitmire notes, somewhat ominously echoing Interstellar and Ad Astra, “NASA astronaut selection is an incredibly rigorous process; those chosen are indeed the best of the best. Yes, they are human—but they are exceptional people who are in the position that they are for a reason.” Many astronauts enter the corps with military backgrounds or experience in extreme environments, so they aren’t likely to become catatonic in stressful situations, like the cowardly Lieutenant Stanford in Ad Astra. They’re screened for psychological risk actors, trained for the conditions they’ll face in flight, and part of a familial culture that sustains them in stressful situations.

“Depressed people in space” is a movie genre unto itself; see this year’s High Life or Aniara, or 2009’s Moon, whose protagonist Sam, alone on a lunar mining mission, complains of being incredibly lonely. “It’s not healthy,” he says, compulsively squeezing a stress ball. When space travel opens up to people outside of the rigorously trained astronaut elite, the same mental disorders that dog us on Earth will accompany us outward, possibly exacerbated by space-induced ennui. But the people we pick to lead the way won’t be as likely to lose control. Whitmire acknowledges that unprecedented interplanetary missions “may lead to some alterations in health or performance,” but she notes that “There is no evidence to date … that such changes would approach something so dire as homicide or suicide. So even in a future mission scenario, there’s certainly Hollywood in those portrayals.”

Dr. Gloria Leon, a psychologist who has conducted extensive space analog research, some of it funded by NASA, expresses the same sentiment in stronger terms. Leon believes that past and present space experiences are generalizable to long-term missions, and that while some psychological discomfort may occur, the disaster scenarios seen in Sunshine and Ad Astra are as far-fetched as any other aspects of their plots. “I think the potential negative psychological effects of long-term space flight are being vastly overdramatized by the media and particularly in films,” she says. Dr. Jason Schneiderman, a neuroscientist who specializes in the effects of spaceflight, notes that in real life, “the mental health concerns are going to be less dramatic, such as how the astronauts will cope with the unexpected injury or death of a loved one, or the stress of maintaining relationships with loved ones on earth.” (Cue the clips of Liv Tyler.)

In contrast, sci-fi skews more heightened drama, which accounts for the epidemic of murderous scientists on the screen. “In general, of course, it is more interesting to focus on negative rather than positive experiences in space,” Leon says. No one’s made a movie about Apollo 14.

Ad Astra does a bit better when it comes to depicting the measures astronauts on extended deep-space missions may take to counteract short tempers, sleep disorders, or feelings of loneliness, anxiety, or depression. On Mars, Roy relaxes in a room covered wall-to-wall with video screens showing outdoor scenes from Earth. Whitmire says the HRP supports research into the “benefits of virtual sights and sounds in austere environments,” which could look like those in Ad Astra or involve VR. On the ISS, astronauts relish their view of the planet whizzing by beneath them, which can help dispel homesickness, boredom, and a lack of sensory stimulation. En route to another planet, the scenery wouldn’t provide the same solace.

“There is a possibility of an Earth-out-of-view syndrome,” says Dr. Nick Kanas, a former NASA-funded principal investigator who has studied astronauts and cosmonauts and written books about space psychology. “No one knows for sure what the impact of seeing the Earth as an insignificant dot in space will do to an astronaut’s psyche.” In the absence of the blue marble, Whitmire says, Ad Astra–like “virtual windows” could swap places with the pale blue dot, displaying high-resolution images of the Earth or the mission’s destination planet.

In Ad Astra, Roy regularly undergoes “psych evals,” which our space experts collectively declare right in principle but probably wrong on the details. Roy’s evaluations are automated: He summarizes his mental state while a machine monitors his words, vitals, and vocal patterns and then almost instantly pronounces him fit or unfit for duty. In actuality, an astronaut would probably consult periodically with psychiatric specialists at mission control, although there’s some possibility that agitated astronauts could try to project peace of mind, as Roy attempts to do. “I would anticipate that data be made available to the crew member, onboard physician, and ground psychological support team to help inform psychological assessments and decisions, rather than the system rendering a final assessment/decision itself,” Whitmire says.

Whitmire, Leon, and Schneiderman agree that astronauts are unlikely to take standard-issue mood stabilizers, as the entire crew of the Cepheus (sans Roy) does on the trip to Mars. Astronauts may take medication to stave off radiation damage, but mood meds could cause side effects, might not work as well in zero gravity, and probably wouldn’t be necessary except in occasional, acute cases.

If there are acute cases, they’re unlikely to arise because it suddenly dawns on an astronaut that space is so big, the sun is so bright, and humans are so small on a cosmic scale. The composer of “Space Dementia,” Muse frontman and noted nonscientist Matt Bellamy, claimed that “if you truly conceptualize the situation of being [in space] and looking back at Earth, it can drive you mad,” but if anything, the opposite tends to be true. “Many astronauts have experienced spiritual experiences related to the vastness of space, but these have been reported as positive events,” Leon says. Several spacefarers have shared accounts of what’s come to be called the “overview effect,” a phenomenon in which the sight of Earth from space fosters feelings of appreciation for and protectiveness toward the planet. “I doubt that there will be an issue with existential crises about one’s place in the universe,” Schneiderman says.

Astronautical navel-gazing is a staple of space movies because most movies set in the stars are also concerned with some inner vacuum that its characters are trying to fill. As Ad Astra repeatedly reminds us, it’s a story about fathers and sons. But it’s also a story about a seriously disturbed scientist, because that’s how Hollywood works. Space is already hostile to human life; must the first humans who go there compound the problem by being so hostile toward each other? The truth about astronauts’ inner lives probably won’t be as strange as the fiction. But in fairness to Ad Astra, it’s not the near future yet. As Whitmire says, “We may not really fully know, until we go.”