Michael Murphy © 2024

Impacts of Extreme Environments on Personal Identity

4 months ago

The New Space Age offers nearly limitless opportunities for human exploration in space. Missions to the International Space Station are currently taking place at an unprecedented rate. The ISS’s replacement, Starlab, is set to be in orbit in 2028. Artemis III is well into preparation with the aim of landing humans on the Moon in 2026. Overhead, the Gateway Station will orbit the moon and act as an outpost for manned missions to the moon and beyond Earth’s orbit, and missions to Mars are looking increasingly likely within our lifetimes. Humanity is rushing headlong into a new era of space exploration–but these missions come with an endless list of big questions. Not least of which, who are you, if you’re not on Earth? 


As humans, our identities are constructed based on how we understand ourselves in relation to our environments–what people are around us, what locations have significance, what decisions we make and how we interact with the social and structural world around us all reflect back to help us construct an idea of who we are as individuals. So what happens when we leave that world? Not just our family, community, country, or planet, but our entire internally built world? And what happens when we create new relations with other people who have also left their worlds, in new environments completely removed from the planet?


As a migration anthropologist, my research studies how extreme journeys change people. In fact, in anthropological theory, there is a process called rites of passage1, which describes a ritual that removes a person from their social context, takes them through a liminal window of uncertainty and malliability, and produces an individual of a different kind. It is a ritual of transformation, when everything that was certain is cast into doubt, deconstructed, and built anew by experiences on the journey. Communitas2 is that incredible experience when a cohort undergoes these rituals together, each extracted from their various social positions and learning from each other as much as the uncertain journey, recreating each other as much as themselves. 


The truth is, despite loads of training and research going into the mental health of astronauts, we don’t actually have much of an idea how the lifechanging, sometimes traumatic experience of migration from Earth changes how astronauts construct their identity. Even short trips have the potential to transform perspectives, but long trips have led to astronauts claiming they are, “no longer Earthling,” and “untranslatable to one’s self.” 


Analogue missions present a perfect opportunity to research this transformation. During the MEILI-I Mission, I created new methods for remote ethnography that allowed our analogue astronauts to document the daily shifts in their perspectives, relations, and identities. As they explored this new world together, separated from Earth and sharing this extreme journey, each astronaut noted progressive transformation in a multitude of ways! 


The data gathered during MEILI-I was proof positive of the concept and methods for ethnographies in space, and has vast implications for humans migrating to Starlab, the Moon, Gateway, and eventually Mars. Now, looking forward to MEILI-II, I’m looking to validate and replicate those findings, while also paying close attention to the variables–will a new crew experience these rites of passage and communitas? Will they too be transformed and “untranslatable to one’s self”? How do team composition, mission objectives, and emergency conditions change the trajectory of identity construction?

As we set our sights on the stars, these are vital questions that we need answers to. This is just one of the exciting research projects taking place through Space Health Research. [Follow this link] if you would like to submit a proposal for a research project for MEILI-II or apply to be an analogue astronaut!


1 Van Gennep, A. (1960). The rites of passage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
2 Turner E. L. B. (2012). Communitas : the anthropology of collective joy (1st ed.). Palgrave Macmillan.