Spacefaring: The Human Dimensionby Albert A. Harrison
The stars have always called us, but only for the past forty years or so have we been able to respond by traveling in space. This book explores the human side of spaceflight: why people are willing to brave danger and hardship to go into space; how human culture has shaped past and present missions; and the effects of space travel on health and well-being. A comprehensive and authoritative treatment of its subject, this book combines statistical studies, rich case histories, and gripping anecdotal detail as it investigates the phenomenon of humans in space—from the earliest spaceflights to the missions of tomorrow.
Drawing from a strong research base in the behavioral sciences, Harrison covers such topics as habitability, crew selection and training, coping with stress, group dynamics, accidents, and more. In addition to taking a close look at spacefarers themselves, Spacefaring reviews the broad organizational and political contexts that shape human progress toward the heavens. With the ongoing construction of the International Space Station, the human journey to the stars continues, and this book will surely help guide the way.
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The Human Dimension
By Albert A. Harrison
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2001 the Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
For several months during 1997, the world riveted its attention on Russia's Mir Space Station. Successor to a string of Salyut stations, Mir had been launched eleven years before. Arguably the world's first true space station (the United States' Skylab had not been intended for continuing occupancy), Mir offered previously unparalleled challenges and opportunities for humans in space. Over the years a succession of Russian cosmonauts had gone about their business, conducting science, trying new commercial applications, and setting records for time aloft. Beginning in 1995 the cosmonauts were joined in turn by the U.S. astronauts Norman E. Thagard, Shannon W. Lucid, John E. Blaha, Jerry Linenger, C. Michael Foale, David Wolf, and Andrew Thomas in a dramatic show of East-West cooperation and in anticipation of the International Space Station (ISS) soon to come.
Mir performed its mission well, but in 1997, after more than a decade in space, Mir struck some observers as cranky, something like an aging car. The problems started in late February, when, as a cosmonaut tried to activate a chemical canister, a fire broke out. In March, an oxygen generator failed and a seven-ton resupply ship was unable to dock. In April the cooling system developed a leak, forcing the shutdown of an air filtration system and causing nasal congestion among the crew. Problems escalated in June when another cargo ship collided with Mir and punched a hole in the Spektr module where metallurgical research was done. Also that month a power problem caused the batteries to run low, and the station's computer disconnected from the control system. In July there was another air leak, and, more ominously, the stabilizing gyroscopes that kept the station oriented toward the sun shut down, making it impossible for the solar panels to absorb the necessary energy. By midmonth Commander Vasily Tsibliyev's heartbeats were irregular when he was under the stress of exercise. Was his high level of stress a cause or a result of the escalating problems?
Two days later Mir started to drift off course after the accidental disconnection of a computer cable and another power shortage. August was hardly better, as it was marked by failing oxygen generators, a malfunctioning automatic pilot system, and yet another main computer breakdown. In September the main computer failed twice, once on September 22, just days before the space shuttle Atlantis was scheduled to dock in order to retrieve Michael Foale, whose tour of duty had concluded. It seemed as if everything that could go wrong, did.
Working in space is always difficult due to cramped quarters, temperature extremes, and the problems associated with weightlessness. Certainly, during the summer of 1997 the pressures on the spacefarers were magnified by the malfunctions and by certain knowledge that they were under close scrutiny by the masses who followed their progress on television and radio. Yet despite equipment failure and human error, the spacefarers' training and determination prevailed. As had always been the case on Mir, the problems were corrected. No lives were lost and the Mir crew carried on.
Mir and its crew were not the only ones at risk during these difficult months. The cascading problems threatened United States-Russian collaboration and perhaps even the near-term future of human spaceflight. No Mir, no ISS; no ISS, no trip to Mars. Anxious space enthusiasts watched as NASA's inspector general evaluated the situation to decide whether or not another astronaut should join Mir. Astronauts accepted their missions and served with distinction. Only a little over half a year after Andrew Thomas departed from Mir, the first components of the ISS were delivered to orbit.
Early 1997 was not the first time that human intelligence, flexibility, and motivation prevailed over incipient catastrophes in space. Just under thirty years earlier, the crew of Apollo 13 managed to circle the Moon and return safely to Earth after the explosion of an oxygen tank left them with barely enough electric power, air, and water to survive. During Mir's widely publicized problems, some spectators castigated the crew and gloated over possible recriminations following their return to Earth. These critics missed an essential point: to err is human, but to recover is human too. On Mir, as on Apollo 13 a generation earlier, when all was said and done the best part of human nature prevailed. As William K. Douglas, the physician to America's earliest astronauts, once said, too often we point to examples of human frailty when we should see the more prevalent signs of greatness instead.
Space exploration is an intrinsically human activity. An automated satellite or robot probe, a contemporary flight aboard a shuttle or Mir, the developing ISS, a return to the Moon, and our first footsteps on Mars all rest on human motives and require human abilities and skills. Many of us, when we contemplate space exploration, think of huge rockets belching clouds of smoke and fire, satellite-tracking dishes, complex communications systems, and of course, the spacecraft themselves. Yet the incredible advances of the last century that first made it possible for heavier-than-air flight, and then to put men and women into space in almost routine fashion, represent far more than a triumph of technology. These accomplishments reflect human ingenuity, adaptability, and determination and are harbingers of greater achievements to come.
The Beckoning Heavens
The stars have always called us, but only for the past forty years or so have we been able to respond. First, people went one by one, and then in groups of two, three, or more. First, space was the province of white male test pilots, but today space draws men and women with many different backgrounds, from many different lands. First, people went for hours, then days, and now for weeks and months. Some day we will go there to stay.
Space has been the province of the selected few: as of the year 2000, only about four hundred people had flown there. Yet, for each person who visits space, many more stand ready. Thousands respond to each call for astronauts, and for every one who applies to become a spacefarer, there must be scores who dream about visiting space.
At present, space travel is extremely expensive. According to one recent estimate, it costs approximately ten thousand dollars to put one pound in low Earth orbit using the space shuttle, and about four thousand dollars to put a pound in orbit using conventional rockets. For the spacefarers themselves, the risks and personal costs are high. People who want to become spacefarers must pass stiff competitions and undergo extensive training. They may have to master a difficult foreign language and culture before they can participate in an international mission. It may be years, if ever, before they are assigned a flight. In the course of their careers, between training, flight, and public relations tours, they are rarely home with their families.
By normal terrestrial standards, life in space is extremely dangerous. To leave Earth's gravity, spacefarers ride atop tons of burning materials, and they perhaps undertake difficult docking maneuvers when reaching their destinations. Typically, today's spacefarers live in noisy, cramped conditions and forego most of the amenities that are regularly available on Earth. There, they maintain difficult and relentless work schedules, perhaps for months at a time.
Why is it, then, that so many people are willing to meet the challenge? This is particularly intriguing in that the next generation of spacefarers, like previous generations, will consist of bright, educated people who would be assured a secure, comfortable, and prosperous existence on Earth. And why are societies sometimes willing to devote enormous amounts of resources to spaceflight (during the 1960s the United States devoted up to 5 percent of its annual budget to spaceflight)? Space advocates argue that we go to space to learn, to tap resources and develop wealth, and to grow and prosper as individuals and as a species.
We are an inquisitive species. We have the time and intellectual resources to generate and disseminate knowledge. Since antiquity, our ancestors have wondered about the heavens, and over the past few centuries we have developed the tools to help satisfy our curiosity. Space exploration teaches us about the universe. Over the years, space programs have sponsored far-ranging theoretical and applied research, and they have given us wonderful tools for engaging people's interests in science.
Advancing Science and Technology
Science and technology gain from the basic research that is a precondition for both robotic and crewed missions. Our movement into space has been accompanied by advances in the physical sciences and engineering. Our desire to send humans into space has forced us to improve our understanding of biology and medicine and to develop life support systems for air and water recycling, temperature and humidity control, food production and storage, and waste management. Spacecraft and satellites provide wonderful platforms for observing and learning about Earth and for unraveling the mysteries of the universe. Unlike their terrestrial counterparts, whose efficiency is undermined by atmospheric distortion, orbiting telescopes are remarkably effective for their size. Space telescopes such as the Hubbell permit observations that would otherwise be impossible. We learn also from robot probes that give us close views of neighboring planets, that sometimes land and analyze local conditions and even return samples to Earth. As R. C. Parkinson points out, space exploration allows us to address such big philosophical questions as "What is the origin of Earth and the solar system?" "What is the origin of the universe?" and "What is the role of consciousness in the universe?"
Although people tend to focus on the adventurous aspects of the Apollo voyages to the Moon, Paul D. Lowman Jr. and David M. Harland add that the voyages brought us excellent scientific returns. These expeditions were complex scientific affairs that involved remote sensing, geologic mapping, and placement of monitoring instruments that lasted for years, as well as collection of 384 kilograms of Moon rocks, which are still undergoing analysis. As a result of Apollo we know much more about the origin and nature of the Moon: despite its rough and unfriendly appearance, it could be a habitable and useful world.
Space offers us conditions that are valuable for certain kinds of experimental research. These include extreme cold, high vacuum, immense uncluttered areas, and a degree of remoteness that could insulate humanity from an experiment gone wrong. The biggest drawing card is microgravity (also known as o-G, or weightlessness), which is useful for research in metallurgy, crystallography, and chemistry, including pharmaceuticals.
Education and Human Resource Development
Space exploration fuels people's interest in science, technology, and nature. Space and space-related activities grab children's attention and are wonderful tools for education. Bruce Cordell and Joan Miller recommend developing space education programs to reinforce students' interest in space, help them separate fact from fiction, and encourage them to think analytically. They suggest beginning with children in the third grade, when they are able to begin grasping the necessary concepts. A good program requires continuing efforts on the part of the teachers, coupled with presentations by expert guests. Presentations should be relatively brief—twenty minutes for the younger children, one hour for high school students. Speakers can engage interest by stressing danger and the unknown, exploration and discovery, and faraway places. Slides or other visual materials are useful, and good humor is essential. Students' experience with science fiction such as Star Trek is a good point of departure for separating fact and fiction.
Strenuous educational efforts are undertaken by the not-for-profit Challenger Centers, established by K-12 teachers nationwide as a memorial to Sharon Christa McAuliffe, who, following a brief moment as the first teacher on a space flight, died in the 1986 Challenger explosion. Working in partnership with schools, universities, museums, and other institutions, Challenger Centers "use the theme of space exploration to create positive learning experiences, foster interest in science, math, and technology, and motivate young people to explore."
Center staff give teachers on-line resources and conduct educator workshops, as well as work directly with children. Some regional centers have shuttle or other mock-ups that allow students to take part in simulated missions. Volunteers themselves assemble annually to hear guest speakers, engage in workshops, and increase their own command of the material.
NASA has always maintained education and information programs. These include programs that disseminate information to the press and the public, and workshops for teachers. Each year groups of teachers gather at NASA centers for a two-week program on science and science education.
NASA brings science education to the schools via the Aerospace Education Specialist Program contracted through Oklahoma State University. This involves a squad of thirty-six specialists, most of whom are assigned to states or urban communities and all of whom are supported by an enthusiastic and productive staff. These specialists work with state leaders in education as well as with teachers and students. You may encounter them on the road driving large white vans from school to school. Their otherwise nondescript vehicles are stuffed with items such as thin slivers of Moon rocks embedded in clear plastic disks, global positioning units, and imitation space suits. There are cartons containing various displays and brochures and the many personal effects required to sustain the vagabond teachers. These educators are skilled at engaging the interest of primary and middle school students, and they encourage give-and-take as students learn about nature. In a slow year, they visit one thousand teachers and twenty thousand students.
Programs such as these offer two benefits. First, they sensitize students to the importance and value of space exploration. Second, they encourage students to become trained in science and technology. Thus, as educational efforts help prime the next generation of citizens to support human activities in space, they help prepare the workforce necessary to bring these activities about.
Centuries ago, people imagined fabulous wealth beyond the seas. Today, we envision fabulous wealth beyond our skies. Telescopes, spectrometers, interplanetary probes, and other tools confirm these resources' presence. Science and education are important in our culture, but we will require significant economic returns if we wish to justify the extremely high cost of establishing a growing and continuing human presence in space.
Some of the riches from activity in space are already in hand, and some should be attainable in the near future. Others, especially those that depend on crewed spaceflight, are beyond our reach and may remain so indefinitely. As we anticipate harvesting cheap electric power, mining valuable minerals, and establishing luxury resorts for tourists and similar ventures, we may overlook the fact that accessing these riches will be extremely difficult and expensive. In a sense, we are like a child with a tiny allowance daydreaming about expensive mountain bicycles in a store window. Under such conditions it can be very difficult to conduct an honest cost-benefit analysis or develop a realistic time line. Overpowered by the grandeur of the opportunities that glitter before us, we may lose sight of the fact that it may be quite some time before we are able to seize them.
All aspects of space exploration—whether it be constructing or operating telecommunications satellites, conducting cutting-edge astronomy with the Hubble space telescope, or establishing a strip-mining operation on the Moon—have immediate economic benefits. So far, not one dollar has been spent in space—all money spent on space exploration has been spent right here on Earth. According to some analyses, every dollar spent on the Apollo Moon Program translated into seven to eight dollars returned to the economy in new goods and services. Space-related activities create high-level jobs: for scientists, engineers, and technicians, for analysts and accountants—for the people who will fly in space and the people whose work on Earth supports them. Scott Sacknoff and Leonard David estimate that parts of the space industry are growing at rates surpassing 20 percent annually, thus creating forty thousand new jobs each year.
Space exploration has encouraged the development of new technologies that have translated into industrial and consumer products that enrich our lives on Earth. These are the so-called spin-offs of the space program. According to Paul S. Hardesen, by the mid-1990s NASA claimed over thirty thousand of them.
Excerpted from Spacefaring by Albert A. Harrison. Copyright © 2001 the Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Meet the Author
Albert A. Harrison is Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Davis. He is coauthor of Living Aloft: Human Requirements for Extended Spaceflight (1985) and From Antarctica to Outer Space: Life in Isolation and Confinement (1991), and author of After Contact: The Human Response to Extraterrestrial Life (1997).
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