The Psychology of David Bowie’s Major Tom – Is space flight a new religion?

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DSCF4134by Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen

One of David Bowie’s most popular and memorable hits is the song ‘Space Oddity’, released in 1969, just before the launch of Apollo 11 and the first moon walk.

Space Oddity might be particularly important in launching Bowie’s career; it was his first UK Top 5 hit.

The lyrics describe an astronaut named ‘Major Tom’, who encounters an ominous technical problem during a space flight. Were the lyrics an eerie prophecy of UK astronaut Tim Peake’s first space-walk last week? NASA cut short the trip outside the space station because of a leaking helmet crisis.

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Both in the song and in real life the astronaut at the centre of the emergency remains amazingly calm despite such a hazardous environment, and in both cases, seem content to enjoy the view. Tim Peake described his first walk as “exhilarating”, so is there something especially resilient about the psychology of astronauts, or can they ‘flip out’ just like the rest of us?

The authors of a new study entitled, ‘Coping strategies during and after spaceflight: Data from retired cosmonauts’, argue that negative psychological reactions in space are less publicized than catastrophic mechanical failures.

However, the authors, from the University of British Columbia, Canada, and Institute for Biomedical Problems, Russian Academy of Sciences, contend that such psychological reactions have significantly undermined the success of space missions in the past.

Concern over astronauts’ coping strategies has been exacerbated by the increasing duration of their time away from home in recent missions, and the growing diversity of crews’ professional training, background, gender, language and nationality.

In this study, recently published in the academic journal, ‘Acta Astronautica’, twenty retired male Russian cosmonauts with an age range of 45–74, participated. They were evenly divided between those who had their last spaceflight before the year 2000, and those whose last flight had been more recent. Half of the group had spent a total of more than a year in space.

The oldest group of cosmonauts, in their 60s and 70s, were most likely to mention ‘confrontation’ as a coping strategy.

The authors, Peter Suedfeld, Jelena Brcic, Phyllis Johnson, and Vadim Gushin, explain that they have no way of establishing whether this surprising finding is a function of aging, more time since their retirement from spaceflight, a feeling of greater independence from the space agency, a changed level of interest in impression management or deeper reflection.

Another unexpected finding was the consistently very high importance of social support as a coping strategy. Surviving in space emerges from this study as appearing to be much more of an interactive, mutually cooperative enterprise, than rugged individualism.

There was no significant difference in this finding between earlier and more recent fliers, ruling out one possible explanation – that the pioneering lone adventurers have given way to a team spirit of the groups flying in larger spacecraft.

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The old idea of the “Right Stuff” was that astronauts were self-sufficient, inner-directed, factually competent – and, although convivial in company, essentially loners.

Space agencies, early astronauts, and researchers had expected that planning, active problem solving, would be the predominant coping style in space. As a result space organizations around the world selected candidates with a solid background in high-performance, usually military aviation. Hence Bowie’s hero in the song is ‘Major’ Tom.

Previous research by Brcic and Sudenfeld on astronauts has also found that mission commanders appeared to have an intuitive understanding of the importance of social support. These patterns may be increasingly important as crew diversity, mission duration, and distance from Earth increase, but this current study already found ample evidence for team spirit even among veterans who flew in the earlier years of the Space Age.

Seeking Social Support was the number one coping strategy deployed by the cosmonauts in this study – this coping skill is defined as efforts to obtain sympathy, help, information, or emotional support from others.

The number two coping skill was ‘Problem-Solving’ which is defined as deliberate, rational, cognitively oriented, efforts to change or escape the situation. Third in popularity was coping skill endurance/obedience/effort (EOE), and refers to trying to persevere and meet demands.

Coping strategies that cosmonauts don’t favour might provide a useful pointer as to what are not helpful things to do in a crisis. After all, this is a unique group of survivors of ultimate high stress predicaments; the best of the best.

Sometimes in life it’s just as crucial, if not more so, to know what not to do, as it is to understand what action to take.

At the bottom of their list of coping strategies came ‘denial’ – ignoring or minimizing the seriousness of the problem, not believing in its reality. Second from bottom was ‘supernatural protection’ or the Invocation of religious or superstitious practices and efforts to gain such protection by, for example, prayer, lucky charms or amulets.

Also near the bottom of the list were the coping strategies of ‘distancing’ – defined as the effort to detach oneself emotionally from the situation; and ‘compartmentalization’ – encapsulating the problem psychologically so as to isolate it from other aspects of life.

In 1980, Bowie released a follow-up to ‘Space Oddity’ called “Ashes To Ashes,” which has received particular attention in the light of Bowie’s recent death. In the lyrics Major Tom declares happiness drifting in space, but Ground Control concludes he must be a junkie.

The fact ‘Space Oddity’ has been so massively successful, and that David Bowie revisited its themes on numerous occasions in later songs, particularly favouring the Major Tom character in his repertoire, suggests that escaping the planet and all its problems reflects a certain universal and deep psychological appeal.

Escapism has long been a coping tactic with massive popular appeal. The psychedelia of the 1960’s with which David Bowie became linked, could be viewed psychologically as embracing ‘escape’ as a solution to life’s problems.

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Roger Launius from the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum, Washington , DC, even argues in a recent investigation entitled ‘Escaping Earth: Human Spaceflight as Religion’, that there is a deeply religious quality to our passion for space exploration. His paper, published in the academic journal ‘Astropolitics: The International Journal of Space Politics & Policy’, contends that human spaceflight could even be viewed as a new religion.

Yet the latest research finds that cosmonauts place ‘supernatural protection’, or the Invocation of religious or superstitious practices, very low down the list of preferred coping strategies.

In the song ‘Space Oddity’, Ground Control wish ‘God’s love’ to protect Major Tom at take-off, but given the latest psychological findings, it’s not clear that many of the real Major Toms would have felt they needed it.

Follow Dr Raj Persaud on Twitter

Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen are joint podcast editors for the Royal College of Psychiatrists and also now have a free app on iTunes and Google Play store entitled ‘Raj Persaud in conversation’, which includes a lot of free information on the latest research findings in mental health, plus interviews with top experts from around the world.

Download it free from these links:

https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.rajpersaud.android.raj

https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/dr-raj-persaud-in-conversation/id9274662

Dr Raj Persaud’s new novel, Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, is based on a unique UK police unit that really does protect Buckingham Palace from fixated obsessives. The psychological thriller poses the question: Is love the most dangerous emotion (link is external)?

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