By Larry Klaes
A new book looking at the inner lives of astronauts is Larry Klaes’ subject today. Planning for long-term missions like a manned trip to Mars requires a great deal of work on closed systems, as we’ve recently discussed. But we also have to consider the psychological issues raised by confinement in a cramped environment for long durations, issues that are one thing in the confines of low-Earth orbit but perhaps another when far from the home world.
Early on the morning of February 5, 2007, several officers from the Orlando Police Department in Florida were summoned to the Orlando International Airport, where they arrested a female suspect. This woman was alleged to have attacked another woman she had been stalking while the latter sat in her car in the airport parking lot. Judging by the various items later found in the vehicle the suspect had used as transportation to the Sunshine State all the way from her home in Houston, Texas, her ultimate intent was to kidnap and possibly conduct even worse actions upon her victim.
While such a criminal incident is sadly not uncommon in modern society, what surprised and even shocked the public upon learning what happened was the occupation of the perpetrator: She was a veteran NASA astronaut, a flight engineer named Lisa Nowak who had flown on the Space Shuttle Discovery in July of 2006. As a member of the STS-121 mission, Nowak spent almost two weeks in Earth orbit aboard the International Space Station (ISS), performing among other duties the operation of the winged spacecraft’s robotic arm.
It seems that the woman who Nowak went after, a U.S. Air Force Captain named Colleen Shipman, was in a relationship with a male astronaut named William Oefelein. Nowak had also been romantically involved with Oefelein earlier, but he had gradually broken off their relationship and started a new one with Shipman. Oefelein would later state that he thought Nowak seemed fine about his ending their affair and moving on to another woman. However, by then it was painfully and very publicly obvious that Oefelein had not thoroughly consulted enough with his former companion on this matter.
NASA would eventually dismiss Nowak and Oefelein from their astronaut corps, the first American space explorers ever formally forced to leave the agency. NASA also created an official Code of Conduct for their employees in the wake of this publicity nightmare.
Now I have no documented proof of this, but I strongly suspect that the Nowak incident played a large but officially unacknowledged role in the creation of the recent offering by the NASA History Program Office book titled Psychology of Space Exploration: Contemporary Research in Historical Perspective (NASA SP-2011-4411), edited by Douglas A. Vakoch, a professor in the Department of Clinical Psychology at the California Institute for Integral Studies, as well as the director of Interstellar Message Composition at The SETI Institute.
Quoting from a NASA press release (11-223), which appeared about the same time as the book:
Psychology of Space Exploration is a collection of essays from leading space psychologists. They place their recent research in historical context by looking at changes in space missions and psychosocial science over the past 50 years. What makes up the “right stuff” for astronauts has changed as the early space race gave way to international cooperation.
The book itself is available online in several formats.
From the Right Stuff to All Kinds of Stuff
It may seem obvious to say that astronauts are as human as the rest of us, but in fact our culture has long viewed those who boldly go into the Final Frontier atop a controlled series of explosions otherwise known as a rocket in a much different and higher regard than most mere mortals. Even before the first person donned a silvery spacesuit and stepped inside a cramped and conical Mercury spacecraft mated to a former ICBM for a brief arcing flight over the Atlantic Ocean in 1961, NASA’s first group of human space explorers – known collectively as the Mercury Seven – were being presented from their very first press briefing in 1959 as virtual demigods who had the right skills and mental attitude to brave the unknown perils of the Universe.
Image: The Mercury Seven stand in front of a F-106 Delta Dart. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The Mercury Seven astronauts were not just men: They were an elite breed of space warriors ready to conquer the Cosmos who also represented the best that the United States of America had to offer when it came to their citizens, their technology, and their science. The nation’s first space explorers may have been ultimately human and limited in various ways, even flawed, but the agency’s goal was to keep any issues in check through their missions at the least and preferably during their full tenure with NASA.
By the time of Nowak’s incident, astronauts may not have been the demigods of the days of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, but they were still looked upon as highly capable people who ventured to places few others have gone and who did not give into human passions beyond a few moments of wonder at the Universe, realistic or not. This is why Nowak and Oefelein’s behaviors were so shocking to the public even four decades after the first generations of space explorers.
There are two reasons why I brought up the dramatic events of 2007 with Lisa Nowak: The first is my aforementioned hypothesis that what took place between the former astronaut and her perceived romantic rival led to NASA feeling the need to examine their policies regarding the human beings they send into space and formally documenting the resulting studies.
The second reason is that Psychology of Space Exploration needed more of these personal stories about the astronauts and cosmonauts. Now certainly there were some of these throughout the book: The Introduction to Chapter 1 relays a tale about a test pilot who was applying to be an astronaut who told an evaluating psychiatrist about the time the experimental aircraft he was flying started spinning out of control. The pilot responded to this emergency by calmly leafing through the vehicle’s operating manual to solve the immediate problem, which he obviously did.
Nevertheless, more of these kinds of stories would have not only made the book a bit less dry as it was in places, but they would have added immeasurably to the information content of this work.
As just one example, in Chapter 2 on page 26, the author mentions (from another source) that the Soviet space missions “Soyuz 21 (1976), Soyuz T-14 (1985), and Soyuz TM-2 (1987) were shortened because of mood, performance, and interpersonal issues. Brian Harvey wrote that psychological factors contributed to the early evacuation of a Salyut 7 [space station] crew.”
The problem here is that the book then moves on without going into any details about exactly what happened to curtail these missions. Knowing what took place would certainly be useful in making sure that future space ventures, especially the really long duration ones that will be of necessity as we move past our Moon, could be the difference between a secure and functioning crew and a disaster.
Incidentally, the author noted that the Soviets, who were usually reticent about giving out many technical details or goals on most space missions manned and robotic, were more open when it came to the experiences of their cosmonauts and showed more interest in their physiological situations in confined microgravity situations than NASA often did with their astronauts.
The Soviet space program also had a longer period of actual experience with humans living aboard space stations starting in 1971 with Salyut 1 (or Soyuz 9 in 1970 if you want to count that early space endurance record-holding jaunt) which NASA did not share between their three Skylab missions in 1973-1974 until their joint involvement with the Soviet Mir station in the 1990s. Having the details from that era would be of obvious benefit and interest.
Image: The MIR station hovering over Earth. It deorbited in March 21, 2001.The station was serviced by the Soyuz spacecraft, Progress spacecraft and U.S. space shuttles, and was visited by astronauts and cosmonauts from 12 different nations. It endured 15 years in orbit, three times its planned lifetime. Credit: NASA.
Granted, as with a collection of research papers such as this, there are plenty of references. Finding the stories this way is not a problem if you are doing your own research and using Psychology of Space Exploration as a reference source, but for the more casual reader it could be a bit of a disappointment when these items are not readily available.
While I think most people who want to learn more about how our space explorers are affected by and respond to and during their missions into the Final Frontier will find something of interest and value throughout this book, Psychology of Space Exploration is largely a reference work that goes into levels of certain details as befitting literature of its type while missing a number of others which I think are just as important for a comprehensive view of human expansion into space, both in the past, the present, and most vitally the future.
The ultimate goal of putting people into space is eventually to create a permanent presence of our species beyond Earth. That is the grand aim even if their initial underlying purposes were more geared towards engineering and geopolitical goals. This is similar to the history of the early navigators who crossed the Atlantic Ocean from Europe to the New World, for they too had other plans initially in mind, although the ultimate result was the founding of the many nations that exist in the Western Hemisphere today.
To give some examples of what I feel is missing and limited in representation in Psychology of Space Exploration, there is but a brief mention of what author Frank White has labeled the “Overview Effect”. As the book states, this is the result of “truly transformative experiences [from flying in space] including sense of wonder and awe, unity with nature, transcendence, and universal brotherhood.”
Clearly this is a very positive reaction to being in space, one which could have quite helpful benefits for those who are exploring the Universe. The Overview Effect might also have an ironic down side, one where a working astronaut might become so caught up in the “wonder and awe” of the surrounding Cosmos away from Earth that he or she could miss a critical mission operation or even forget what they were originally meant to do. Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter may have been one of the earliest “victims” of the Overview Effect during his Aurora 7 mission in 1962. Apparently his very human reaction to being immersed in the Final Frontier in part caused Carpenter to miss some key objectives during his mission in Earth orbit and even overshoot his landing zone by some 250 miles. Carpenter never flew in space again, despite being one of the top astronauts among the Mercury Seven. It would seem that in those early days of the Space Race, having the Right Stuff did not include getting caught up with the view outside one’s spacecraft window, at least so overtly.
Another item largely missing from Psychology of Space Exploration is the effects on space personnel after they come home from a mission. Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, who with Neil Armstrong became the first two humans to walk on the surface of the Moon with the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, is one of the earliest examples of publicly displaying the truly human side of being an astronaut.
Although not revealed publicly until 2001 by former NASA flight official Christopher C. Kraft, Jr., in his autobiography Flight: My Life in Mission Control, the real reason Aldrin was not selected to be the first one to step out of the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle onto the Moon was due to the space agency’s personal preference for Armstrong, who Kraft called “reticent, soft-spoken, and heroic.” Aldrin, on the other hand, “was overtly opinionated and ambitious, making it clear within NASA why he thought he should be first [to walk on the Moon].”
Image: Astronaut Buzz Aldrin. Credit: NASA.
Even though Aldrin was a fighter pilot during the Korean War, earned a doctorate in astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and played an important role in solving the EVA issues that had plagued most of the Gemini missions and was critical to the success of Apollo and beyond, his lack of following the unspoken code of the Right Stuff kept him from making that historic achievement.
Aldrin would later throw the accepted version of the Right Stuff for astronauts right out the proverbial window when he penned a very candid book titled Return to Earth (Random House, 1973). The first of two autobiographies, the book revealed personal details as had no space explorer before and few since, including the severe depression and alcoholism Aldrin went through after the Apollo 11 mission and his departure from NASA altogether several years later, never to reach the literal heights he accomplished in 1969 or even to fly in space again. Although Aldrin would later recover and become a major advocate of space exploration, he is not even given a mention in Psychology of Space Exploration. In light of what later happened with Nowak and several other astronauts in their post-career lives, I think this is a serious omission from a book that is all about the mental states of space explorers.
The other glaring omission from this work is any discussion of the human reproductive process in space. NASA has been especially squeamish about this particular behavior in the Final Frontier. There is no official report from any space agency with a manned program on the various aspects of reproduction among any of its space explorers, only some rumors and anecdotes of questionable authenticity.
As with so much else regarding the early days of the Space Age, that may not have been an issue with the relatively few (primarily male) astronauts and cosmonauts confined to cramped spacecraft for a matter of days and weeks, but this will certainly change once we have truly long duration missions, space tourism, and non-professionals living permanently off Earth. As with daily life on this planet, there will be situations and issues long before and after the one aspect of human reproduction that is so often focused upon. Unfortunately, outside of some experiments with lower animals, real data on this activity vital to a permanent human presence in the Sol system and beyond is absent.
I recognize that Psychology of Space Exploration is largely a historical perspective on human behavior and interaction in space. As there have been no human births yet in either microgravity conditions or on another world and the other behaviors associated with reproduction are publicly unknown, this work cannot really be faulted for lacking any serious information on the subject. What this does display, however, is how far behind NASA and all other space agencies are in an area which will likely be the determining factor in whether humans expand into the Cosmos or remain confined to Earth.
So Far Along, So Far to Go
What the Psychology of Space Exploration ultimately demonstrates is that despite real and important improvements in how astronauts deal with being in space and the way NASA views and treats them since the days of Project Mercury, we are not fully ready for a manned scientific expedition to Mars, let alone colonizing other worlds.
Staying in low Earth orbit for six months at a stint aboard the ISS as a standard space mission these days gives an incomplete picture of what those who will be spending several years traveling to and from the Red Planet across many millions of miles of space will have to endure and experience. If an emergency arises that requires more than what the mission crew can handle, Earth will likely be a distant blue star for them rather than the friendly globe occupying most of their view which all but the Apollo astronauts have experienced since 1961.
Regarding this view of the shrinking Earth from deep space, the multiple authors of Chapter 4 noted that ISS astronauts took 84.5 percent of the photographs during the mission inspired by their motivation and choices. Most of these images were of our planet moving over 200 miles below their feet. The authors noted how much of an emotional uplift it was for the astronauts to image Earth in their own time and in their own way.
The chapter authors also had this to say about what an expedition to Mars might encounter:
As we begin to plan for interplanetary missions, it is important to consider what types of activities could be substituted. Perhaps the crewmembers best suited to a Mars transit are those individuals who can get a boost to psychological well-being from scientific observations and astronomical imaging. Replacements for the challenge of mastering 800-millimeter photography could also be identified. As humans head beyond low-Earth orbit, crewmembers looking at Earth will only see a pale-blue dot, and then, someday in the far future, they will be too far away to view Earth at all.
Image: Jerrie Cobb poses next to a Mercury spaceship capsule. Although she never flew in space, Cobb, along with twenty-four other women, underwent physical tests similar to those taken by the Mercury astronauts with the belief that she might become an astronaut trainee. All the women who participated in the program, known as First Lady Astronaut Trainees, were skilled pilots. Dr. Randy Lovelace, a NASA scientist who had conducted the official Mercury program physicals, administered the tests at his private clinic without official NASA sanction. Cobb passed all the training exercises, ranking in the top 2% of all astronaut candidates of both genders. Credit: NASA.
Now of course we could prepare and send a crewed spaceship to Mars and back with a fair guarantee of success, both in terms of collecting scientific information on that planet and in the survival of the human explorers, starting today if we so chose to follow that path. The issue, though, is whether we would have a mission of high or low quality (or outright disaster) and if the results of that initial effort of human extension to an alien world would translate into our species moving beyond Earth indefinitely to make the rest of the Cosmos a true home.
The data recorded throughout Psychology of Space Exploration clearly indicate that despite over five decades of direct human expeditions by many hundreds of people, we need much more than just six months to one year at most in a collection of confined spaces repeatedly circling Earth. This will affect not only our journeys and colonization efforts throughout the Sol system but certainly should we go with the concept of a Worldship and its multigenerational crew as a means for our descendants to voyage to other suns and their planets.
This book is an excellent reflection of NASA in its current state and human space exploration in general. As with the agency’s manned space program since the days when the Mercury Seven were first introduced to the world in 1959, we have indeed come a long way in terms of direct space experience, mission durations, gender and ethnic diversity, and understanding and admitting the physiological needs of those men and women who are brave and capable enough to deliberately venture into a realm they and their ancestors did not evolve in and which could destroy them in mere seconds.
Having said all this, what I hope is apparent is that we now need a new book – perhaps one written outside the confines of NASA – which will address in rigorous detail the missing issues I have brought to light in this piece. This request and the subsequent next steps in our species’ expansion into space – which will also eventually take place beyond the organizational borders of NASA – cannot but help to improve our chances of becoming a truly enduring and universal society in a Cosmos where certainty and safety are eventually not guaranteed to beings who remain confined physically and mentally to but one world.