The second space age is upon us, with its promises of imminent space tourism, inevitable Mars colonization, and independent orbital countries.

The fact that science fiction is becoming real excites many, annoys some, and absolutely terrifies an unfortunate few suffering from spacephobia or astrophobia, which is characterized by a fear of outer space or celestial objects. For those people, the idea of colonizing Mars is pants-wettingly horrifying. That’s fine, they don’t have to go. But psychologically similar spacephobes may truly suffer several generations down the line if humanity does become a multiplanetary species.

For people with spacephobia, the very concept of space creates feelings of anxiety and distress. As with other phobias, this fear is irrational. Humans can only survive for 15 seconds exposed in space, but no one has — contrary to Gravity — floated off into orbit. The perils of both cis-lunar and extra-lunar space are also eminently avoidable for people who don’t work as professional astronauts.

Phobias usually manifest themselves when you’re a child or a teenager — sometimes because of a specific event or experience, or sometimes because of an acute anxiety that may slowly progress into a full-blown fear. Genetic factors and brain chemistry may also play a role. Exposure to specific media could as well. It’s the golden age of science fiction right now and, yes, that could lead to the proliferation of fear.

In a sense, spacephobia is an amped up version of agoraphobia, the unfortunately common fear of going outside. Agoraphobes suffer privately or overcome their terror to lead normal lives; regardless, it’s a rough time. And it could — at some point in the distant future — be a similarly hard go for spacephobics born to asteroid miners or deep space explorers. Eventually, spacephobia could become to natural-born Martians what aquaphobia currently is to those born on islands.

For now, spacephobia is not debilitating, but like other phobias — which are treated variously with medications like beta blockers and antidepressants or exposure therapy, relying on acclimation to a phobia — it’s also nearly impossible to treat. If someone has ophidiophobia (fear of snakes), exposure therapy would probably first involve getting someone comfortable with first talking about snakes, then looking at pictures of snakes, then watching videos, and at last being comfortable with seeing snakes in real life and perhaps even holding one and interacting with it. Spacephobia is trickier because you can show pictures and video, but you can’t just send people into orbit (though virtual reality might help psychologists get around this limitation until rocket scientists eliminate it).

For now, spacephobia and astrophobia are minor conditions. They do, however, permanently ground some peoples’ imaginations. And there is harm in that even if we’re all not headed to Mars tomorrow.

Photos via Pixabay

Neel is a science and tech journalist from New York City, reporting on everything from brain-eating amoebas to space lasers used to zap debris out of orbit, for places like Popular Science and WIRED. He's addicted to black coffee, old pinball machines, and terrible dive bars.