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Space Madness

"Our deepest fear is going space crazy through loneliness. The only thing that helps me keep my slender grip on reality is the friendship I have with my collection of singing potatoes."
Holly, Red Dwarf

Something about the deep recesses of outer space seems to inspire insanity in a lot of fictional characters. Maybe it's the loneliness, the feeling of insignificance it inspires, or things that mankind was never meant to encounter. Or, perhaps, Hyperspace Is a Scary Place. Or the mind that can't handle the emptiness itself long enough starts to make things up to fill it. Regardless, a good chunk of fiction seems to link outer space with insanity. Can occur with Ludicrous Speed.

The trope takes its name from an episode of The Ren & Stimpy Show, about, well, Ren's space madness (and only Ren's, because his moronic sidekick Stimpy seems to be immune). It is of course an example of SpaceX.

Compare Ocean Madness, since Space Is an Ocean and all that. Cabin Fever is a related trope, due to its similarities to the close confines of a spacecraft.

Examples:

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    Anime and Manga 
  • Infinite Ryvius. After being isolated in space with no supervision, the children on the Ryvius turn on each other quickly and cruelly. In addition to the Humans Are the Real Monsters elements of the series, the madness might also be partly a result of the Applied Phlebotinum used in the Vaia ships, given that the captains of Blue Impulse and Grey Geshpenst also go insane.
  • Planetes spends a large portion of its run dealing with space madness, when a member of the team of space garbage collectors becomes separated from their craft in the depths of space and ends up combating the fear of being alone by convincing themselves that all people are meant to be alone.
  • In an early episode of Captain Harlock, Tadashi Daiba comes down with a case of space madness on his first trip in space. He has some strange hallucinations before collapsing.

    Comicbooks 
  • An early Legion of Super-Heroes story had Sun Boy snapping from too many consecutive deep space missions, after which the Legion Constitution was amended to require mandatory downtime every so often.
  • The 2000AD series Ace Trucking Co. featured a condition called "Isolation Syndrome" or "Abbo Dabbo" as a recurring trope.
  • In 52, Animal Man is told not to look out the spaceship's windows for too long because it tends to cause existential crises.
    • For extra humor, the man who gives him this advice is blind.
  • Storm of the X-Men, suffered a more mild version of this due to the fact that she was away from the Earth and felt a disconnect returning. She was angry and decided to get a new look involving leather and a Mohawk. She eventually got better.

    Fan Works 
  • Discussed but downplayed in The Next Frontier. As noted in the Real Life section, manned (or rather kerballed) spaceflight is not very exciting or hands-on and there isn't a whole lot for the crew to do most of the time.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In the film Armageddon, this is the justification for the loopy Mir "Russian space station" attendant. He'd been alone up there for quite a while. Rock Hound, on the other hand, suddenly comes down with "Space Dementia" and starts shooting everything with the remote-controlled gatling gun they brought along for some reason. Mind you, those guys weren't all that sane to start with.
  • Dr. Reinhardt from The Black Hole.
  • Sunshine (2007) features several cases of space madness of varying severity, from the mild (becoming addicted to close-range suntanning) to the severe: "Mankind was not meant to tamper in the domain of God! Die!"
  • Averted in Outland. Federal Marshal O'Niel is trying to find out why miners on Io are going insane and killing themselves. At first it seems like they're cracking up under the pressure of living in grimy, crowded, dangerous conditions far from Earth. 28 have died in the last six months, with 24 in the six months prior. But when O'Niel is told only two died in the six months before that, he realises something's fishy.
  • Played completely for laughs in Dark Star, where the entire crew has gone visibly unhinged from five years stuck inside cramped space, performing a thankless job that nobody wants and having nothing to do.
  • Figures largely into the film Pandorum. "Pandorum" is actually their term for space madness.
    • It's not entirely clear if Pandorum is the result of being in space for a long time or a side effect of the Human Popsicle process. Could be a mix of the two.
  • Conquest of Space (George Pal's 1955 sci-fi flop after his previous blockbusters Destination Moon and When Worlds Collide). The general in charge of the mission to Mars begins to crack, and in a religious fervour tries to sabotage the spacecraft in the belief that Man is not meant to leave planet Earth. In this case the psychological instability is (more realistically) linked to the stress under which the astronauts work, rather than any inherent properties of Outer Space. Earlier in the movie when a candidate for the mission washes out, the doctor diagnoses it as: "Space sickness, brought on by excessively long training without any breaks."
  • Arguably the whole driving force behind Silent Running. Freeman Lowell is clearly somewhat on-edge from the start, though in this case it has more to do with his sense of responsibility in protecting what remains of Earth's forests. By the time he receives orders to destroy them, he's willing to murder his crewmates (even letting one of the forest-protecting domes be destroyed in the process). Then he slowly starts to lose it through a mix of being alone with only two robots and the occasional voice on the radio for company, guilt over the deaths of his partners and accidentally running over one of the two robots), and eventually grief upon realizing that the forest is dying, to the point where he can't quite think straight enough to figure out why despite being a botanist. By the time it's all over he is willing to detonate a nuclear explosive on board the ship while he's still on it.

    Literature 
  • Grant Callin's A Lion on Tharthee goes into detail about the issue. Becomes a plot point.
  • The Robert A. Heinlein novel Stranger in a Strange Land. Secretary General Douglas asks if Dr. Mahmoud is "space happy" from his trip back from Mars.
    • The main character of the Heinlein story Ordeal In Space develops severe acrophobia after an EVA accident sends him adrift in space until rescue arrives, forcing him to give up space flight. He snaps out of it when he nerves himself up to rescue a kitten stuck on a ledge.
  • Larry Niven's Known Space:
    • In one short story, Belters (asteroid miners) are said to temporarily lose their minds while staring at space, similar to "highway hypnosis". They continue to function somewhat, much like sleepwalkers.
    • Human (and probably Kzin, kdatlyno, Pak, etc.) brains have a defense mechanism against a certain form of this: you'd go mad looking at hyperspace, since your brain isn't evolved for that kind of geometry, and so your brain simply edits out windows, viewscreens, etc.
  • The Total Perspective Vortex from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe works by showing the victim, just for one brief instant, the entire universe, and their place in it. It's described as the worst fate a sentient being can endure, as the realisation of just how insignificant he is completely destroys his soul.
    • Zaphod Beeblebrox proved to be completely immune to it. It was at first thought that he's so egocentric that the Vortex has exactly zero effect on him. The real reason was that he was exposed to it while in a pocket universe specifically designed for him... therefore he actually was the most important thing in that universe, meaning the Vortex didn't have its intended effect.
  • In the classic short story "Scanners Live in Vain" by Cordwainer Smith, humans are unable to cope with the "Great Pain of Space" (whose exact cause is unknown but related to the FTL technology) and rely on cold sleep ships crewed by habermans whose brain has been severed from all sensory input except the eyes, and whose body therefore has to be regulated by implanted instruments.
    • The Pain of Space wasn't space madness, it was actual physical pain. At the time Cordwainer Smith wrote the story, little was known about the environment of outer space, or what the strange and little-understood radiations there would do to a human body. Smith used this as an excuse to write an allegorical tale about the tragic dangers of separating the head from the heart (and not the way they mean in Highlander, either).
  • In Isaac Asimov's The Martian Way, it is a widely known "fact" that nobody can remain in space for more than six months without going crazy, and it is hard to even remain that long, which is why ships are built as big as possible and are filled with libraries and movie theaters to keep their passengers occupied. However, the hero points out that many humans who have colonized Mars have stayed out in space for longer, and on much more cramped an un-amusing ships, too, as they have adapted to the experience. They also think that floating in the void in a spacesuit is great fun, and spend much of their off-duty hours while travelling between planets doing so.
  • Asimov has also written a story called "I am in Marsport without Hilda" which is based around the fact that most people cannot travel in space without a dose of special medication... and it is very difficult to conceal the fact said medication can be cooked into a super drug in anyone's kitchen.
  • In the short story "The Second Kind of Loneliness" by George R. R. Martin, the sole inhabitant of a space station spends most of the story wondering why his relief hasn't arrived. Only at the end does he remember that he murdered his relief several months prior for interrupting the solitude he had finally become accustomed to.
  • The Shores Of Death by Michael Moorcock: no-one can leave the Earth for as much as a month without their spirit driving them mad with the pain of separation from mother Gaia. One man manages to spend years away by reforming himself into a mutant monstrosity, but his acolytes die horribly. Then again, Orlando Sharvis may in fact be another incarnation of Arioch, or perhaps Satan.
  • Michael Moorcock develops this theme in The Black Corridor, a novel where a handful of people leave a doomed insane Earth in a colony ship. The central character is on his lonely vigil tending the life-support systems keeping the rest in suspended animation. but deep Space threatens to overwhelm him... set to music by space-rockers Hawkwind.
  • In the short story "Competition" by James Causey, just looking into a viewport is enough to send a female biochemist into temporary insanity — it's mentioned that only experienced space travellers can do so.
  • In the 1960 short story "Egocentric Orbit" by John Cory, the first men launched into space withdraw into themselves and refuse to talk to anyone, such is the ego-boosting effect of seeing the entire world revolve around them.
  • In the William Gibson short story "Hinterlands", those who travel the interstellar "Highway" invariably return catatonic, insane or dead by their own hand. In rare cases a returnee can be temporarily grounded in reality by taking some really good drugs with someone they can totally relate to.
  • "The Nothing Equation", a short story by Tom Goodwin (of "The Cold Equations" fame). An astronaut is assigned to a one-man astronomy station at the edge of the galaxy. He knows that his replacement went insane, and the one before killed himself, but is confident he won't crack up. Slowly though he becomes obsessed with idea of just how vulnerable he is out here, with a hull one sixteenth of an inch thick holding 2 million pounds of pressure. He starts charting every possible vulnerable point and ends up months later cowering under a makeshift tent, convinced the "nothingness" outside is just waiting for a chance to come rushing in. The story ends with a fourth astronaut taking over the post also confident that he won't crack up; after all there's 'nothing' out there to be afraid of...
  • In the short story "Scrimshaw", by Murray Leinster, a group of millionaires on the first tourist trip to the Moon go into catatonia or kill themselves as Earth retreats behind them and they realize their sheer insignificance. (As practice showed later, Leinster's ideas of human humility were greatly exaggerated.)
  • Mack Reynolds wrote a Star Trek book, Mission to Horatius, in which the possibility of "space cafard" became a concern. Spock described it as:
    "Compounded of claustrophobia, ennui—boredom, if you will—and the instinctive dread of a species, born on a planet surface, of living outside its native environment.... A mania that evidently is highly contagious. It is said that in the early days of space travel, cafard could sweep through a ship in a matter of hours, until all on board were raging maniacs, and—"
  • Tomorrow War by Alexander Zorich all ships has at least some bays equipped with real windows (not videoscreens). If this feature is omitted, the crew will grow less stable until someone starts to drool or breaks the screen and then walks out of an airlock. One of the reasons may be sensory deprivation during jumps — crews obviously are used to FTL travel and aren't jarred too much, but it seems to make the long-term problem worse.
  • This is why patrol ships have a mirror installed in them in Stanislaw Lem's Tales of Pirx the Pilot. Pirx ends up kicking himself in the face repeatedly before returning to his senses. In fact, one of the tests one must endure during the piloting academy is sensory deprivation by the means of a special salt-water pool.
  • Andrey Livadny's novel Ganymede Rising has the crew of the USS Harry S. Truman, an american space cruiser, who are sent on a top-secret mission to the titular moon of Jupiter to retrieve a recently-discovered alien artifact. When someone brings up the fact that the Truman is not designed for interplanetary travel (it lacks cryogenic pods, for one), and there's a strong risk of this trope. The others wave the concern off, claiming that the crewmembers are American soldiers and their resolve and faith in their nation will sustain them. They're wrong, of course. After long months of travel, the crew of the Truman does indeed start losing their minds. So when strange creatures start coming out of the artifact, The Captain orders an attack on it and also sends troops to the Ganymede colony (which is not under American jurisdiction). When the attack fails (the insane soldiers end up accidentally shooting one another, as the aliens are holograms), he gets ready to push the button and Nuke 'em all.
  • Unlike the movie, Arthur C. Clarke's rendition of 2001: A Space Odyssey went into great detail Dave Bowman's life aboard Discovery after the deaths of his partners and disconnecting the HAL 9000 computer, making his only contact with Earth through pre-recorded messages. Given his circumstances he had quite a bit of difficulty remaining sane.
  • In the Honor Harrington universe, it's mentioned that the realization of just how dangerous being in space in can cause people to crack every now and then, requiring the person in question to be sedated and transferred to a groundside post for therapy. A normal naval vessel has something like this happen once or twice a T-year (Terran year). Between the decidedly substandard crew and the highly disturbing sermons of the ship's chaplain (in which he implores God to not let any of the various things that can destroy a ship happen in excruciating detail for fifteen minutes over the public address system every morning), the Francis S. Mueller from the John Ringo short story "A Ship Named Francis" has to trank at least one person every week.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Star Trek has a bunch:
    • Star Trek: The Original Series episode "The Lights of Zetar". Scotty says that going on your first deep space trip can affect a person's mind.
    • Star Trek The Original Series episode "The Tholian Web". Being in a particular area of space causes violent insanity by distorting the molecular structure of brain tissues and the central nervous system.
    • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Dramatis Personae".
    • Star Trek: Voyager has The Void. (confusingly, it's in the episode titled "Night", not the episode titled "The Void") It's lightyear upon lightyear of nothing. You can't even see the stars; it's so big that hardly any ships cross it, thus nobody from either side knows much about the other. It's so big that the ship has to be on minimum power, and a broom leaning against the Conn panel could fly the ship. Nothing to do, nothing to see, everybody goes stircrazy or suicidally depressed.
      • Or composes a hauntingly beautiful clarinet piece (Of course, Perpetual Ensign Harry Kim always was one of the most stable of the bunch).
    • Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Night Terrors" has the crew become irritable and paranoid after coming across a Federation ship where the crew went insane and killed each other. Though in that case, it was because an alien vessel's attempts at communication disrupted the crew's REM sleep patterns rather than the usual space anomaly.
  • Parodied on an episode of satirical British series Brass Eye, in which a segment documents the way in which NASA were forced to place a mentally retarded man on the Apollo 11 flights as an outlet for the crew's massively heightened sexual impulses caused by space travel. Women were deemed "too silly" for space.
  • Red Dwarf has references to people going space-crazy. Most notably Holly, the ship's computer, spent 3,000,000 years alone in deep space and has gone a bit peculiar.
  • iCarly: Carly manages to suffer from this after a few hours in "iSpaceOut" even though she, Sam and Freddie never go to outer space and are just in a simulation room.
  • This is a theorized origin of the Reavers in Firefly - that they went to the edge of known space and something they saw, whether it was the vast emptiness or something else, drove them insane. Not everyone believes this - as Jayne points out in The Movie: "I went to the edge of space once. Know what I saw? More space." The truth is simultaneously much simpler and infinitely worse.
  • In the Farscape episode "Coup By Clam", "transmissible celestial dementia" is a greatly feared infectious disease.
    • Also, in the episode "Crackers Don't Matter", where the light from a pulsar makes everyone lose their marbles for a time.
  • The first Twilight Zone episode "Where Is Everybody?" is about a man who finds himself in an empty town. He's revealed to have hallucinated the whole thing during an exercise designed to replicate the feeling of isolation in outer space.
  • On John Doe, a metal dome in the forest turns out to be a simulated space vessel, in which astronauts have been confined for months to test the mechanisms and psychological hazards of a manned trip to Mars. Initial investigation suggests the crew have killed each other due to Space Madness from prolonged isolation but it turns out their air-circulation system was sabotaged, causing a gas imbalance that impaired their reason.
  • On Community Pierce succumbs to this after a few minutes of being locked inside a space simulator.
  • In Kamen Rider Fourze, several of the cast is participating in astronaut trials, including being locked in a small room. When the examiners throw in some alarm klaxons and gouts of smoke to mess with the students, Ryusei of all people has a Freak Out and swats at the smoke while making Funny Bruce Lee Noises. The others are convinced he failed the test on purpose so at least one Rider would be available to fight the Monster of the Week; Ryusei responds Sure, Let's Go with That, not wanting to admit he was legitimately flipping out.
  • In one episode of The Big Bang Theory during the arc where Howard was aboard the International Space Station he started breaking down, getting paranoid about the thin walls between him and vacuum and missing gravity to the point where he asked Bernadette to drop something so he could watch it fall in one of their video chats. Eventually the other astronauts strapped him down and pumped him full of tranquilizers.
  • A major part of the back-story of Extant is that one of the astronauts went insane after prolonged exposure and isolation in space (13 months) and quickly killed himself upon his return to Earth. This raises big issues over if what Molly, the protagonist, experienced in space really happened or if she's suffering from the same problem.

    Music 
  • Muse's song Space Dementia.
  • This is quite possibly what happens in David Bowie's song Space Oddity. In the song, an astronaut named Major Tom makes a trip into outer space, and when ground control detects a problem, he makes a last transmission of "Tell my wife I love her very much" before contact is lost. The last verse of the song implies that the isolation will drive him mad.
    • A later Bowie song, Ashes to Ashes states that "Major Tom's a junkie" - although whether the drugs are the cause or the result of his space madness remains unspecified.
  • The Van Der Graaf Generator song Pioneers Over C is about an astronaut who, very similarly to Major Tom from Space Oddity, loses contact with ground control. The song goes on as an Inner Monologue of his insanity.
  • In the Sandra Boynton three-part song "Cow Planet", sung by Billy J. Kramer, episode 2 heavily implies this is starting to happen to the crew by then. The voices sound deadpan and irritable, and some of the lyrics even suggest that some are getting sick of each other. "We've got a blazing afterburner, it's an irritating drum..."
  • Hawkwind, along with collaborator Michael Moorcock, are fond of this trope. Witness 'Space is Dark'', which evokes the total Perspective Vortex:
    Space is dark, and it's so endless;
    When you are lost, it's so relentless;
    space is so big, and we're so small,
    Why does man have to act so tall?
    Is this the reason, deep in our minds?
  • The Blue Öyster Cult song Monsters deals with this trope. A woman and two men escape a dying Earth in a spacecraft; there is a mad fight over her between the two men; she is inadvertently killed....
    • The song Sole Survivor may also invoke this trope.

    Videogames 
  • The Fury from Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, a Russian cosmonaut that went Ax-Crazy from something he witnessed while outside the earth's atmosphere. His suit was on fire, and he saw the Earth through the flames... making the Earth appear to be on fire.
  • In Policenauts, this leads to a higher rate of drug abuse amongst astronauts, who developed the designer drug Narc as a way to relieve the pressure of living in space. Narc is a psychedelic hallucinogen that also gives the same narcotic effect as heroin, so users are incredibly resistant to pain. It's also outrageously addictive.
  • Captain Vladamir from No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle. Possibly as a shout out to the fury above, was a cosmonaut who went insane from isolation and didn't realize he was back on earth until he dies at the end of the fight when his helmet is shattered. Fridge Logic abound about why he was an assassin when he didn't even know where he was.
  • Flavor text for the Oort Cloud in X3: Terran Conflict mentions that those who work there sometimes fall victim to "Oort's Curse", a madness with no known cause or cure.
  • Stated as the cause of the Demon Pirates' bizarre, disjointed speech patterns and homicidal aggressiveness in Tachyon: The Fringe. An unspecified 'something' in the pirates' nebula seriously scrambles their neural pathways over an extended period of exposure, and not even the hermetic sealing of a spaceship is proof against it. There are cases where individuals removed from the nebula slowly recover some shaky semblance of sanity, indicating that it might well be the nebula itself that is responsible for the degeneration.
    • It's also implied that the Fog was created, or at least modified, by Dr. Randall Cassitor. Luckily, one of the missions involves you getting a group of the Demon Pirates to attack Cassitor's base.
  • According to one interpretation, Pacman is really an astronaut searching the ship for anti-anxiety pills while hallucinating his dead crew mates as ghosts.

    Web Originals 
  • A short story on 365 Tomorrows involved walking out in space driving an astronaut to suicide. It implied that it was a fairly common circumstance.
  • Captain's Log chronicles a crew of space explorers descending into madness and depravity as the boredome and isolation get to them.

    Western Animation 
  • The Ren & Stimpy Show actually had an episode titled "Space Madness". In it, the tedium of space travel starts to get to Commander Hoek (Ren) and he starts to lose his mind (however little there is of it to lose in the first place). Cadet Stimpy was forced to restrain him, but Hoek believes that Stimpy is the one who has Space Madness and plots to get rid of him.

    Real Life 
  • This trope likely originated in 1950's experiments designed to test the effects of working in a cramped, low-oxygen environment — which could result in hallucinations and other signs of mental stress. Of course, this had more to do with the isolation and sense of claustrophobia created by such experiments, but as no-one had actually gone up into space at the time the results were not encouraging. Actual astronauts worked in bigger capsules and were either not up long enough to make any difference, or worked as part of a team. The psychological effects of long-range multi-year missions to Mars however have yet to be seen.
    • As the recent experiments Mars-100 and Mars-500, mentioned below show, while there could be some frictions, they're nothing that cannot be dealt with.
  • One of the justifications for the short-lived push for women astronauts in the late 1950's was that studies had shown they could cope with isolation better than men.
  • The European Space Agency locked 6 people in a house/mock-spaceship for over 500 days, as an experiment to see how people would cope with a trip to Mars and back. Naturally, they still had gravity, but the communications delays and isolation from "Earth" were simulated pretty well. They emerged unscathed, though they were certainly happy to be out.
    • One of the lessons taken away from this experiment was that the best remedy for this trope is probably the simplest; make sure that all the participants have plenty to do. This is harder than it sounds, because piloting a spacecraft is a task that consists of short bursts of complex mathematical calculations -which, unless something has gone spectacularly wrong, will be handled by computer- followed by anything from hours to months of waiting. Lightweight, compact storage media for books, music and other entertainment media might be as crucial to the feasibility of manned spaceflight as any development in the field of rocketry.
      • They should give them access to TvTropes
  • The fears of Space Madness led to the situation when Yuri Gagarin's capsule controls were locked up, with the code to be transmitted to him from the Earth after his mental state was evaluated. Unofficially he had the codes on a slip of paper in his pocket.
    • Another version is that he had this code in a sealed envelope inside his capsule and he wasn't supposed to know it beforehand. Two different people told him the code on the launch day. Bonus points for second one telling the code just minutes before sealing the ship.
    • The whole team was completely convinced (and was later proven right) that the theory was bupkis, as it was proposed by a doctor who never had any experience with spaceflight or even aviation medicine. But he had too much clout to be simply ignored, so they were forced to play along.
  • Gemini 7 was an endurance test for Frank Borman and Jim Lovell. Long after they'd run out of things to do, as Lovell later reported, "For the last few days we just existed."
    • This may have more to do with the fact that the cabin of the Gemini spacecraft was the size of the front seat of most automobiles than the outer space environment, especially given that crews on the International Space Station regularly stay up for six months at a time, and some Russian cosmonauts were on Mir for more than a year on end with only their two crewmates for company.
    • That, and a urine collection bag burst early in the mission, causing the capsule to smell like a public latrine.
  • Urban legends that keep circulating in Russian yellow press and equally yellow internets claim that Soviet and Russian cosmonauts periodically have episodes of weird hallucinations while in space. Those hallucinations sometime seem to be mystical, sometimes the voices warn of hardware malfunctions, and one time a cosmonaut allegedly came to believe he is a dinosaur.


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