'Lucy in the Sky' takes one crucial aspect of astronaut life to the extreme

Space travel changes you, long after you come back down to earth.

Lucy in the Sky

Unlike Ad Astra or The Martian which take place mostly in space, the newest Hollywood space epic, Lucy in the Sky focuses on life on earth. Loosely based on the real-life experience of NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak, the film follows astronaut Lucy Cola, played by Natalie Portman, as she floats in outer space, travels back to Earth, and navigates her life and career in Houston, Texas.

While the film is a dramatic take on extreme behavior, it does touch on a very real concept: Space travel can change people in ways that linger long after they return.

Lucy experiences intense emotions in space and back at home: awe, longing, impaired judgment, anxiety, and ultimately, a violent episode. And while astronauts won’t experience the psychological unraveling Lucy does when they return from a mission in space, experts do say that space travel can take a psychological toll. In turn, profound changes can root in the mind and last for decades.

The overview effect

Lucy in the Sky opens with Cola tethered to a space shuttle, orbiting Earth. She’s caught in cosmic reverie, marveling at the beauty of it all. As soon as she returns to Earth, she wants to go back up and the rest of the film is spent chasing that inimitable feeling.

Cola’s intense, emotional reaction to space travel isn’t unique when viewed through the perspective of the many real-life astronauts who have reported feelings of staggering awe, even transcendence, when they looked at Earth from above. Seeing our swirling blue-green planet from space can shatter worldviews and shift perspectives.

That transformative experience is known as the “overview effect,” a term coined by space writer Frank White in 1987. White defined the overview effect as: “a profound reaction to viewing the Earth from outside its atmosphere.”

Douglas Vakoch, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, space expert, and president of the non-profit research organization METI. He tells Inverse that the power of the overview effect comes down to experiencing one’s existence in an entirely new way.

“So there is this fragile blue planet with the thinnest of atmospheres protecting all of life on earth,” Vakoch says. “A number of astronauts report a very profound experience of looking back on Earth and seeing our world with none of the political boundaries we’re so used to as defining conflicts.”

lucy in the sky
The overview effect is powerful, and sometimes overwhelming. 

Viewing our planet from such a distance can lead to increased awareness of the unity of humanity as well as the beauty and fragility of Earth. Previously, NASA astronauts told Inverse the overview effect made them feel “connected to the universe,” gave them a new appreciation for Earth as “paradise or heaven-like,” and a deeper understanding for humans’ place in the larger scheme of things.

Life in space

The average person isn’t likely to venture into space, but astronauts, seemingly superhuman space explorers, spend their lives preparing for and traveling into the cosmos. In a 2006 study that evaluated 39 astronauts, each reported that going to space was an overwhelmingly good experience, leading the authors to conclude that “being in space is a meaningful experience that makes an enduring positive impression on astronauts.”

However, the experience can also put a lot of pressure on the mind and body.

“You’re isolated, you’re separated from loved ones at home, you’re in a very confined environment,” Vakoch explains. “In some sense, you have no connection with people back home and yet you also never have a moment of solitude because you’re in a cramped spacecraft with other astronauts; and you’re constantly scheduled to be working at high performance.”

Lucy in the sky mental health
Lucy Cola with professional and romantic rival, Erin Eccles, played by Zazie Beetz.

Astronauts often report high levels of stress, bodily discomfort in zero gravity, and problems sleeping. Some experience heightened anxiety, depression, and interpersonal conflict with colleagues. Vakoch compares it to “a road trip from hell, only with the added risk that this could be potentially life-threatening.”

Luckily, astronauts don’t usually crack under pressure. In fact, NASA claims there has never been a behavioral emergency aboard any United States space flights so far.

But it’s important to note that being open about mental health problems isn’t common either because astronauts fear losing flight status if they acknowledge any weakness. Like Cola, who tried (and failed) to hide her internal anguish from her superiors, admitting these issues doesn’t fit with the perfect picture of astronauts that society upholds.

“The challenge we’re facing is the image of an American astronaut that was created in the 1960s as these heroic individuals who have no problems that the rest of us mortals do, and now they’re boldly going into space,” Vakoch explains.

However, it’s not that simple.

“Astronauts are as complex or more complex than any of the rest of us. They have harnessed their energies and their focus to do something the rest of us couldn’t dream of, but they can still have their inner demons, they can have their conflicts and those can play out in their lives.”

After all, astronauts are still people.

Coming home

Readjusting to life on earth isn’t always easy for astronauts. In the movie, Cola returns home to Texas to her cheery husband, teenage niece, and sarcastic grandmother. She’s struck by the mundane nature of life and grows anxious and dissatisfied with her day to day activities. She struggles to sleep, deals with flashbacks to her experiences in the cosmos, and becomes antsy to return. She wants to “feel the feeling,” she says, and over the course of the film, she spins out trying to do so.

Her behavior becomes erratic: She has an affair, pushes herself dangerously far in her training, and drives across the country to confront her former lover and his new girlfriend. In a concluding scene, Cola stands surrounded by police, teetering on the edge of a parking garage looking up at the sky.

Lucy in the sky
Cola pictured with colleague and lover, Mark Goodwin, played by Jon Hamm.

Ultimately, she loses her marriage, career, and sanity, in a course of events that is not common for astronauts post-mission. In November 2018, retired astronaut Marsha Ivins, criticized the film’s premise for perpetuating the long-standing notion that astronauts lose their grip on reality after extended periods in space.

However, while Vakoch agrees that Lucy in the Sky is an extreme depiction, he does say there is a kernel of truth to her story. On the one hand, visiting space can be protective, he says. The distance insulates astronauts from the daily pressures of home: political strife, constant bad news churn, and relationship conflicts. It can also create opportunities for partners to reevaluate and recommit to relationships when astronauts come home.

On the flip side, adjusting to life on the ground and reintegrating into family life can be very difficult. Vakoch puts it this way: “You may have accomplished the most important, most challenging event of your life. And now how do you adapt to the world moving forward?”

After returning from space, some astronauts report depression, substance abuse issues, and relationship problems. Of the thirty astronauts in the Gemini, Mercury, and Apollo space programs, 23 of their marriages ended in divorce.

“It was hard for them to come home,” Faye Stafford, the former wife of astronaut Tom Stafford shared in the book, The Astronaut Wives Club. “Who could ever compete with the Moon? I was lucky if I could come in second.”

Today, technology has helped mitigate some of these issues: there’s closer communication during space travel through Skype calls and email exchanges, and astronauts participate in bimonthly psychological conferences with medical staff during space travel. There is screening, counseling, preparation and support during and after missions. There’s also increasing awareness of the psychological toll of space travel, especially during long trips like planned missions to Mars. But astronauts may still fear losing flight status.

“The key is to develop technologies that will let astronauts monitor their own mental health and get some support that is confidential,” Vakoch says. He points out that the astronauts who have best adapted to life-post space are those who let go of the past, something Cola wasn’t able to do. They realize that, while their time in space was “maybe the defining period of their lives” there is more life to live.

After her dramatic downward spiral, Cola pops up years later on a bee farm. As she cares for the bees, Cola removes her protective hood and marvels at the whirl of bees buzzing around her.

“This is what life is: to fly into the great unknown,” Cola narrates on screen.

But the thing about the great unknown is that you don’t know what it will do you. Going to space is an incredible experience; it’s important to acknowledge it can have downsides too.

Media via Hilary B. Gayle, Fox Searchlight Pictures