Can astronauts experience lunacy?

The following is my answer to a question posted on Quora.com.

What if an astronaut on the moon refused to go back to Earth?


Whoa! Where does everyone get off saying that astronauts are invulnerable to a mental breakdown. Not saying that was the case cited below but it was strange and leads me to suspect that somebody wasn’t engaged in NASA certified thinking.

Lisa Marie Nowak, a NASA astronaut flew aboard Space Shuttle Discovery in July 2006, where she operated robotic arms of the shuttle and the International Space Station. Less than seven months later, she was arrested in Orlando, Florida, and charged with the attempted kidnapping of U.S. Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman, who was romantically involved with astronaut William Oefelein who Nowak previously had an affair with.

Nowak was released on bail, and initially pleaded not guilty to the charges, which included attempted kidnapping, burglary with assault, and battery. During the case, some pretty whacky behaviour was alleged.

Nowak remained a Navy captain until August 2010 when a naval board of inquiry reduced her rank to commander and discharged her under other than honorable conditions.

That’s the factual stuff. Now for the mythical and fictional.


As long as man has looked up at the moon, mystical powers have been ascribed to our nearest celestial neighbour.

Talk to folks in hospital emergency wards or at bars where fights are frequent. When stuff goes crazy, someone inevitably says: “Is there a full moon out there?”

Luna was the Roman goddess of the moon and from that we derive the word “lunatic.” To quote Scientific American: “Belief in the ‘lunar lunacy effect,’ or ‘Transylvania effect,’ as it is sometimes called, persisted in Europe through the Middle Ages, when humans were widely reputed to transmogrify into werewolves or vampires during a full moon.” [Lunacy and the Full Moon – Does a full moon really trigger strange behavior? By Hal Arkowitz, Scott O. Lilienfeld on February 1, 2009.]

SA went further: “One survey revealed that 45 percent of college students believe moonstruck humans are prone to unusual behaviors, and other surveys suggest that mental health professionals may be still more likely than laypeople to hold this conviction. In 2007 several police departments in the U.K. even added officers on full-moon nights in an effort to cope with presumed higher crime rates.”

So if you’re into the mythical, no NASA approved shrink’s gonna keep the crazy away.


Ben Bova’s acclaimed sci-fi novel Voyagers (1981, volume I) ends with that exact scenario except it’s not the moon but an airless alien spacecraft headed for deep space that the astronaut refuses to leave despite pleas from ground control, his fellow crew member, and his love interest.

For all intents and purposes, the astronaut is committing suicide because no rescue is possible if he doesn’t leave the alien ship with his crew buddy that second.

Bova’s hero [it is fiction after all] has the slimmest possibility for salvation. He can and does use the alien ship’s cryogenic system to place himself in suspended animation but it was an extreme long-shot that the system would work on a human, and even then that he could ever be found by future Earthlings and unfrozen safely.

That said, Voyagers was the first book in a series so I leave it to you to determine whether the astronaut was crazy or looking for repeat appearances in more books.

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