Coping with family stress compounded while in space, says Canadian astronaut

Family stress is complicated enough — even more so when you’re dangling in orbit 350 kilometres from Earth.

Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk gestures as he rests inside a vehicle of the Russian Space Agency shortly after his landing in the steppe near the town of Arkalyk

Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk gestures as he rests inside a vehicle of the Russian Space Agency shortly after his landing in the steppe near the town of Arkalyk

MONTREAL — Family stress is complicated enough — even more so when you’re dangling in orbit 350 kilometres from Earth.

For Canadian spaceman Bob Thirsk, it was tricky balancing responsibilities at home while focusing on the job aboard the International Space Station.

During Thirsk’s six-month sojourn in 2009, his wife, Brenda Biasutti, was involved in two car accidents several months apart while driving around Houston.

“She had some physical injuries and emotional stress associated with those car accidents,” Thirsk said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.

“And even more important, I felt so helpless and far away.”

Luckily, the orbiting astronaut was able to keep in touch with his wife by cellphone and was regularly monitored by a medical team.

Thirsk, a father of three, said his wife’s accidents had an impact on his work in space.

“My job on orbit is to work at a very high performance level,” he said.

“And if my mind is partially on my family distressing at home, it’s difficult to focus on the professional aspects of the job.”

Emotional stress will likely increase as long-haul missions become the norm in space travel.

From his celestial perch, Thirsk was able to get help from the ground to cope with feelings of guilt and helplessness over his wife’s accidents.

Dr. Marvin Lange, an Ottawa psychiatrist, was part of a six-person medical team who kept tabs on Thirsk. The two chatted by video every two weeks.

“We would do kind of a chat going anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes and it would give me a good idea of how he was doing,” Lange said.

Lange said Thirsk and the other astronauts also stayed in touch with their families through weekly private family video conferences.

But Lange said there can be a downside: any problems at home will lead to increased stress levels.

Lange said future space explorers will be dealing with a “whole different ballgame.” A trek to Mars, for example, would take more than two-and-a-half years.

“I think it’s going to be quite a different process when they are far enough that they can’t see home anymore,” he said.

“We have some concerns about how that affects people if they are gone for two or three years.”

Lange said that ability to handle long-duration space travel was key in the selection of Jeremy Hansen and David Saint-Jacques as Canada’s newest astronauts.

“We looked specifically at traits in people that would allow them to not just be away six months, but to be away for extended periods of time,” Lange said.

“And also that they would be able to cope with periods of high stress, high work, but maybe even periods of boredom when they would be in transit.”

A trip to the red planet would involve two trips of between six and nine months, with another nine months on the surface waiting for Earth and Mars to line up again in orbit.

Communications with ground crews on Earth will be complicated because of the vast distance — at least 55 million kilometres — between the two planets.

“If you were talking to an astronaut, it’s going to take 25 minutes for your voice to reach Mars and then 25 minutes for the astronaut’s voice on Mars to get back to Earth,” Thirsk said.

So discussions with family won’t be a workable scenario.

“It’s going to be a little more psychologically stressful — a little more difficult for families and astronauts,” the 57-year-old astronaut said.

Although parenting from space and doling out discipline is tough enough, Thirsk recalls trying keep his teenage sons, 13 and 19, in check during his six-month stint.

“It’s safe to say it’s really tough to do that when you’re 400 kilometres away, perhaps on the other side of the Earth,” Thirsk said.

“They tended to blow me off a little bit.”