This is one of those books that can appear to be highly specialized and of little interest to anyone who is not a professional working in that discipline. It turns out to be an enjoyable and informative text that is very easy to read and capable of taking the attention of a wide audience. It is difficult to see how any consideration of manned space exploration can be undertaken without having a reliable understanding of the psychology involved.
NAME: Psychology of Space Exploration
CLASSIFICATION: Book reviews
AUTHOR: editor, Douglas A Vakoch
BINDING: Soft back
PRICE: US$37.80 international, US$24.80 CONUS
SUBJECT: space flight, astronauts, cosmonauts, psychology, behaviour, biomedical, medicine, zero gravity, low Earth orbit, lunar flight, deep space exploration, manned space flight
DESCRIPTION: In half a century of space flight, much has been learned about the risks of manned space flight and of medical factors. Before the first Russian and US flights, some believed that astronauts would face dangers that would make space flight impossible for humans. There was concern that radiation would kill or sicken astronauts. It was believed that the human body would be unable to withstand prolonged periods of weightlessness, or survive the forces imposed during launch. This concern has surfaced at each revolutionary stage in the development of transportation. In the early days of steam railways, there were those that believed humans could not withstand the speed. Concerns were raised when submarines and aeroplanes were first developed. Most of these concerns have proved to be either unfounded, over-estimated, or capable of engineering and other solution. However, the cost and political relationships of space exploration demanded very careful research before the first humans left Earth atmosphere. When the first Americans were selected for astronaut training, they were selected from applications by military pilots and test pilots. One important consideration was physical size and the first astronauts were below average height because of the limited internal volume of the first spacecraft designs. Essentially, the first astronauts were selected from white men in their thirties who were able to demonstrate an ability to face high levels of risk and to operate effectively under stress, while holding large quantities of very technical information in memory and instantly available in an emergency. The “Right Stuff” aspect of astronaut selection resulted in the selection of highly motivated pilots, some of whom had already flown close to space and at high speeds, but space travel was still a huge unknown. The US astronauts would not only have to work together in confined spaces, under great pressure, but they would also be expected to appear on television to a massive audience because the US space programme intended to be open and publish failures, where there were any, with the same honesty as successes. Developing psychological assessment systems and building into the training program methods of helping astronauts to cope in a potentially hostile world, far from any form of help, was a major challenge. The perceived similarities between space flight, aeronautical flight, submarines and diving did provide some early anchors for the psychology of space flight but the similarities were not exact. A diver may operate with a buddy diver, but is essentially alone in a vast space where weightlessness is almost achieved but is different from living for days, weeks, months, and longer without gravity. The diver is limiting experience to a matter of minutes and hours, supported by the water but moving through it as a dense material. Flying an aeroplane may be similar to flying a spacecraft, but the aeroplane can be landed in an emergency, usually with little difficulty. A high-speed experimental aircraft may fly at several times the speed of sound, but significantly slower than a spacecraft. The complexity of a spacecraft control panel may look to a novice like a control panel on an airliner, but is several times more complex. A submarine may operate under water for months, the crew connected with the world outside only by sophisticated sensors, but that is not the same as living for months in a spacecraft or space station. Many of the difficulties and concerns when the first man space flight was being planned have been qualified or discounted on the basis of fifty years of manned space exploration. Television broadcasts from US spacecraft and the ISS have given little indication of the stress under which the astronauts were working and the only real demonstration has been in the movie recreating the efforts of the Apollo 13 crew to improvise a “lifeboat” from their lunar landing module to return home after an explosion on the way to an intended lunar landing. However, most space flight has been in low Earth orbit. The only exceptions have been the handful of US lunar expeditions, where two men have descended to the lunar surface for a short period to gather rock samples, walking, or driving in a lunar buggy, while the third crew member has orbited in the command module until their return from the Moon’s surface. The International Space Station has provided the means to place astronauts in space for much longer periods, but they have been able to observe the Earth below them, to talk with minimum transmission delay to colleagues on Earth, knowing that in an emergency a rescue mission is possible from Earth and that only short periods will pass before other astronauts visit them or replace them. One method of relieving stress has been for a fellow astronaut in Mission Control acting as the radio interface with those in space, where the knowledge that this person has received the same training and flown in space reassures the astronauts that the link on the ground is “one of them”. The main advance, gained from the ISS, on a few brief orbits in a spacecraft is that the effects of radiation and weightlessness on the human body can be observed carefully over an extended period. From this, we have a period of preparation without direct experience, experience of short duration low orbit flights, a brief experience of longer travel to the Moon, and of longer periods in space in low Earth orbit. As we now contemplate longer flights within the solar system, there is a mass of direct experience, which helps to prepare for those explorations, but still leaves much to be discovered. This book is a collection of fascinating papers from scientists who are leaders in their fields. As the sub-title says, this is “contemporary research in historical perspective”. It demonstrates the current level of knowledge of psychology of space exploration as it has been built up and the direction in which it must now develop further. In the process, it discloses facets of historical space travel that have not been widely known, such as a strike by US Spacelab astronauts. The layout of the book is very logical, starting with an introduction that reviews the history of the US space program from the view point of psychology. The first section then examines “surviving and thriving in extreme environments as three chapters covering: behavioural health; from Earth analogs to space – getting from there to here, and; patterns of crew-initiated photography of Earth from the ISS – is Earth observation a salutogenic experience? Section Two devotes two chapters to managing negative interactions and gender composition. Section Three devotes two chapters to examination of multicultural aspects of mixed culture, language, and race, crews working together, with a final chapter considering the journey from the past to the future. There are then the usual notes to support the preceding text. This is one of those books that can appear to be highly specialized and of little interest to anyone who is not a professional working in that discipline. It turns out to be an enjoyable and informative text that is very easy to read and capable of taking the attention of a wide audience. It is difficult to see how any consideration of manned space exploration can be undertaken without having a reliable understanding of the psychology involved. That may not have deterred politicians who have blown hot and cold over the last fifty years. From the first efforts of German rocket scientists to exploit their position in the US, in the years immediately after the Second World War, to take their experience, of building and firing ballistic missiles in anger, to developing rockets and spacecraft to carry mankind out into the great unknown of space, politicians have exhibited difficulty in holding any understanding of the importance of space exploration. Perhaps NASA would have profited from developing effort to understanding the psychology of politicians. It is cheaper and easy to launch robot probes out into space than it is to send out a manned spacecraft. Human psychology has difficulty in understanding any project where the explorers may never be able to return home and where their spacecraft may not be able to support the crew indefinitely. Against this, mankind is based on exploration and expansion. To survive, it must find new environments to colonize and that cannot be achieved with robots, until such time as mankind is able to find a way of integrating with a machine to potentially extend life indefinitely, or at least as long as the machine can be maintained and repaired. In many respects, space flight is much like the life of early seamen who sailed out into the unknown and had no certainty that they would find land before their supplies were exhausted and no certainty that they would ever return to their homes. They were not certain that the Earth a sphere that permitted circumnavigation and they had been brought up on folk law that saw monsters and supernatural beings in the expanse of oceans. In history, the majority have usually viewed each generation of explorers as strange, seeing little point in their costly undertakings. Then the majority wonder why no one thought of exploring before, when the benefits become obvious. From the first controlled manned flight to viable weapons of war took only a decade and it provided the platform from which to develop civil aircraft. In a hundred years, flight has come from frail machines able to fly for minutes to a public transport system that moves millions of people around the world routinely for leisure and business. Against that progress space flight has been rather slow to develop. It is now poised for a major step forward. Once countries like Russia see commercial exploitation from space travel, great funds will be advanced with great reliability and progress will speed up. In the interests in cutting public debt, the US politicians are handing manned space flight to commercial corporations. This is a gamble because a commercial entity is driven by profit motive and that profit has yet to be realized from manned space flight, even though there is strong profit from launching a variety of unmanned satellites and perhaps from building manned orbiting satellites.