Senseless tragedies have a way of forcing people to rethink previous assumptions in an effort to somehow make sense of them. So, when seven astronauts died aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in February, policy wonks almost immediately began their utilitarian assessments, struggling amid an array of statistics, budget overrun projections and cost-benefit analyses to determine whether it still made sense to spend billions to send a few people at a time into the dark, frigid void that is space.
For all that money, critics claim, the amount of science and technological advancement that results is a pittance compared to what could be achieved without subjecting humans to the risks of space flight. Perhaps so, but once all the statistical and economic factors have been considered, the intangibles come into play.
"It is the last frontier and it's one of the great explorations," Robert L. Helmreich, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and director of its Human Factors Research Project, told Psychiatric Times. Helmreich's project has done work for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), other government agencies and private organizations. "That's of great value to humankind. But in terms of all of the other costs versus benefits, and the economics of it all, that's not a call for the explorer to make. That's a call for society to make."
The intangibles, and what U.S. culture derives from them, are important, said Chris Flynn, M.D., a NASA flight surgeon and chief of psychiatry at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. "You can see it in the inverse when you see a country like China," Flynn said in an interview with PT. "[It] has a population that certainly requires careful assessment of how money is spent for the country, [and] you see them putting so much funding and so much effort into launching people into space. It gives you a sense of how powerful [is] the emotion of going beyond the limits that are set for us by our surroundings."
There are also important societal values that are modeled by astronauts, Flynn said, including the focus on achievement, education, hard work and patriotism. Eliminating manned space flight would mean the disappearance of heroic icons who symbolize the best human traits.
"What society loses is this unspoken hope that the boundaries [we're] living with right now are not the boundaries that [our] children will live with," Flynn said. [We] are part of expanding our boundaries. I do think there's a significant degree of emotional connection for many people in that."
For Nick Kanas, M.D., professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine, and associate chief of the mental health service at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, the space program offers practical and psychological benefits that are worth retaining. A principal investigator in a research program called Human Interactions in Space, Kanas and his colleagues have conducted studies in collaboration with Russian researchers that probe the interactions between multinational space station crews who must coexist under conditions of isolation and confinement.