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Space Madness: The Psychosis That Never Happened

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From Star Trek to Ren and Stimpy to Van Der Graaf Generator’s “Pioneers Over C,” pop culture and fiction are filled with men, women, and animals who have gone excitedly beyond the bounds of the Earth ... only to lose their grips on reality and mentally break from the stress of space travel. The phenomenon is colloquially known as Space Madness—and while we laugh it off as a TV trope today, in the late 50s, when manned space travel was just a few years away, the disorder was a valid fear.

Around the same time that American moviegoers were watching General Merritt lose his mind and sabotage his craft in Conquest of Space, psychiatrists feared the same fate for real-life space travelers. In a special report on “space psychiatry,” the American Journal of Psychiatry noted that one might expect strong indications of psychopathology from men who signed up to be fired into the cosmos. "Volunteers for dangerous missions," it said, "occasionally have rather bizarre motivations." The report recommended interviews and psychologic testing to weed out those with “gross judgmental defects or other major defects in ego integration,” but concluded that “man’s psychological plasticity is a matter of record, and if workable and habitable space ships are constructed … effective pilots can be found to use them.”

Still, the idea weighed heavy on minds at NASA. In an examination of the history of space madness published earlier this year, science historian Matthew H. Hersch writes that government psychiatrists feared that the volunteers for the first manned space missions would be “impulsive, suicidal, sexually aberrant thrill-seekers.” Even if guys like these didn’t make it through screening, the psychiatrists were still worried that seemingly normal, sound minds would break when dealing with weightlessness, radiation, isolation, fear, and even the deprivation of cigarettes and Coca-Cola in space, and doom their missions.

Down to Earth

When the United States Air Force began trying to identify pilots with both the technical skills and the physical and mental fortitude for space travel, however, the psychiatrists who did the screening actually found little cause for alarm.

Instead, the volunteers exhibited many qualities associated with the stereotypical NASA nerd. Most were were engineers that, while drawn to the allure and danger of flying, were studious, professional, responsible, and comfortable working with dangerous machines. They were stable men with “excellent interpersonal skills and slight obsessive-compulsive tendencies.”

“Tests revealed the would-be spacemen to be sane, poised professionals able to absorb extraordinary stresses,” Hersch writes, and the screeners found the whole group to be free of “psychosis, clinically significant neurosis or personality disorder.” While a few pilots didn’t meet the intellectual aptitude requirements, none of the initial volunteers were cut from selection on psychological grounds.

In training and in orbit, the astronauts displayed the same cool they had during testing. After Neil Armstrong had to eject from a jet-powered lunar landing simulator less than a second before it crashed to the ground, Hersch recounts, he was back at his desk an hour later, quietly working, with “a lack of affect that one colleague regarded as odd, even for an astronaut." Psychiatrists assigned to returning astronauts to look for evidence they were “spaced out or raptured to death” found no signs of any problems. “If anything," says Hersch, “spaceflight had flattened the men's personalities rather than encouraging bouts of emotion or grandiose thoughts.”

There are some notable exceptions, of course. After his space-faring career, Buzz Aldrin struggled with alcoholism and depression as part of what he called a “good, old-fashioned, American nervous breakdown.” Other astronauts dealt with substance abuse too, or marital discord, but “these reactions were not uniform,” Hersch says, and didn’t “amount to a discrete syndrome or disease.”

With Space Madness never manifesting in real life, a new archetype was born: the astronaut as an unshakeable space-age cowboy.

You can read Hersch’s article here.

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Health
Growing Up With Headphones May Not Damage Kids’ Hearing
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A study published in the American Medical Association's JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery finds no increase in child and adolescent hearing loss despite a rise in headphone and earbud use.

"Hearing impairment in children is a major public health burden given its impact on early speech and language development, and subsequently on academic and workforce performance later in life," the authors write. "Even mild levels of hearing loss have been found to negatively affect educational outcomes and social functioning."

As portable music players continue to grow in popularity, parents, doctors, and researchers have begun to worry that all the music pouring directly into kids' ears could be damaging their health. It seems a reasonable enough concern, and some studies on American kids' hearing have identified more hearing loss.

To take a closer look, researchers at the University of California-San Francisco analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), collected from 1988 to 2010. They reviewed records from 7036 kids and teens between the ages of 12 and 19, checking each participant's hearing tests against their exposure to noise.

As expected, the authors write, they did find a gradual increase in headphone use and other "recreational noise exposure." And they did see an uptick in hearing loss from 1988 to 2008 from 17 percent to 22.5 percent. But after that, the trend seemed to reverse, sinking all the way down to 15.2 percent—lower than 1988 levels. They also found no significant relationship between noise exposure and hearing loss.

The results were not uniform; some groups of kids were worse off than others. Participants who identified as nonwhite, and those of lower socioeconomic status, were more likely to have hearing problems, but the researchers can't say for sure why that is. "Ongoing monitoring of hearing loss in this population is necessary," they write, "to elucidate long-term trends and identify targets for intervention."

Before you go wild blasting music, we should mention that this study has some major limitations. Hearing loss and other data points were not measured the same way through the entire data collection period. Participants had to self-report things like hearing loss and health care use—elements that are routinely under-reported in surveys. As with just about any health research, more studies are still needed to confirm these findings.

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Weather Watch
NASA Figures Out Why When It Rains, It (Sometimes) Drizzles
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What’s the difference between drizzle and rain? It has to do with updrafts, according to new research by NASA scientists into the previously unexplained phenomenon of why drizzle occurs where it does.

The answer, published in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, could help improve how weather and climate models treat rainfall, making predictions more accurate.

Previously, climate researchers thought that drizzle could be explained by the presence of aerosols in the atmosphere. The microscopic particles are present in greater quantities over land than over the ocean, and by that logic, there should be more drizzle over land than over the ocean. But that's not the case, as Hanii Takahashi and her colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory found. Instead, whether or not rain becomes full droplets or stays as a fine drizzle depends on updrafts—a warm current of air that rises from the ground.

Stronger updrafts keep drizzle droplets (which are four times smaller than a raindrop) floating inside a cloud longer, allowing them to grow into full-sized rain drops that fall to the ground in the splatters we all know and love. In weaker updrafts, though, the precipitation falls before the drops form, as that light drizzle. That explains why it drizzles more over the ocean than over land—because updrafts are weaker over the ocean. A low-lying cloud over the ocean is more likely to produce drizzle than a low-lying cloud over land, which will probably produce rain.

This could have an impact on climate modeling as well as short-term weather forecasts. Current models make it difficult to model future surface temperatures of the Earth while still maintaining accurate projections about the amount of precipitation. Right now, most models that project realistic surface temperatures predict an unrealistic amount of drizzle in the future, according to a NASA statement. This finding could bring those predictions back down to a more realistic level.

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