Nature Deprivation: How Astronauts Can Cope

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Imagine being an astronaut on a trip to colonize the Moon, or even Mars. You’ll spend days in a tiny capsule made of metals, ceramic composite and thermal protection tiles. You’ll float most of the time, except for at night, when you’re strapped down to sleep. And as your spaceship moves further into space, the blue marble of the earth will become a smaller speck. All that thrives on Earth…the trees, the animals, the lush grass, the sparkling streams, will be thousands of miles away.

So, how will human beings respond to being so far away from our home and from nature? What can astronauts do to stay connected to planet earth while floating around in space? Many of these journeys will take months, if not years, which could result in nature deprivation.

The Effects of Nature Deprivation

Richard Louv, author of the books The Nature Principle, Last Child in the Woods and Vitamin N, says nature deprivation is a real problem.

“As people spend less time of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow, physiologically and psychologically. Some of the consequences include diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses, a rising rate of myopia, obesity, Vitamin D deficiency, and other maladies,” he said.

Dr. Robert Zarr, pediatrician in Washington, DC, and founder of the program ParkRXAmerica believes nature has the power to heal, which is why he prescribes nature to his patients.

“There’s a growing body of scientific evidence, around 400 studies, that show the connection between time spent in nature and improved health outcomes,” said Dr. Zarr. “There was one study with two groups of patients that all had a gallbladder removed. One group had a picture of nature next to their beds, the other did not. What the researchers noticed was a significant difference in the number of times a patient in the room with no nature photo hit the pain button. Also, the group that had more exposure to a natural scene discharged earlier on average.”

This all shows that humans truly need nature to survive. So what will the astronauts do?

Bringing Nature Along For The Ride

Since photos of nature helped patients heal, a simple thing astronauts can bring on their trips to outer space is pictures. Maybe a photo album of beautiful nature shots from around the world. The tactile is also important; astronauts can consider bringing a piece of mother earth with them. A rock, a book of pressed flowers and plants, a small piece of driftwood from their favorite beach.

“Many of us believe that the human connection to nature is fundamental to maintaining our humanity. Research suggests that it is also fundamental to our physical and mental health,” said Louv. “A relatively new body of evidence strongly suggests that the natural world increases physical competency linked to mental acuity, increases ability to see patterns where others see chaos, stimulates the senses to collect and perceive knowledge and apply it, and increases creativity.”

So, not only would it help an astronaut’s well-being to have reminders of the natural world on board a spaceship, it would also improve cognitive functioning.

Dr. Zarr said he’s been learning more about the benefits of eco-therapy, using all one’s senses, paying close attention to what you can see, touch, hear and smell.

“I remind myself when I’m outdoors not to just put up with the cold wind but to embrace it. What does it feel like? We shouldn’t be scared about going outside just because it’s windy or rainy,” he said.

He believes in the benefit of touching and holding a piece of nature, and that this could serve astronauts well in space.

Embracing a Whole New Natural World

Astronauts experience a slice of nature that most of us will never have access to. Maybe, one day, the stars, the nebulae, the distant galaxies will provide their nature fix as they coast to explore unknown worlds, set up colonies, and learn to live and be one with the quiet expanse of space.

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