"One can argue that the International Space Station [is] a microcosm of having to get along with people from other cultures and countries on Earth," Kanas told PT. "What we're trying to learn in terms of culture, language [and] background and how [they] impact on multiethnic, multigender crews interacting under conditions of isolation and confinement on the Space Station will hopefully teach us a lot about ways of getting along on Earth."
Kanas agrees that the symbolic elements of the space program also play an important role. In addition to the scientific, technological and medical advancements and the strides in understanding human behavior, the space program also fulfills a basic human need to explore and expand.
"We've always done this. We've always moved out from our neighborhood into other neighborhoods and seen what's over the horizon," Kanas said. "All of these factors, you put them together, and then you take them away and there's a kind of vacuum; and to me, it's a powerful symbol."
Larry Palinkas, Ph.D., a medical anthropologist and professor of family and preventive medicine at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine, is also the chair of the external advisory council of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute. Funded by NASA, the institute develops countermeasures for health problems that astronauts are likely to experience during missions of long duration. Palinkas, who has studied behavior, performance and cognition issues related to stress and isolation in space as well as in the Arctic and Antarctic, told PT that the programs that have tested human endurance have also provided role models for U.S. children, encouraging them to pursue higher education and greater achievement.
"My own opinion is that it extends beyond that to an evolutionary drive," Palinkas said. "One of the things about humans that has engaged us as a species capable of adaptation has been this drive for exploration, and that drive typically occurs in the classroom. ... While unmanned space flights add an important element to that notion of exploration, I see manned space flights as the most visible representation of that need to explore, that need to learn."
How Americans will react to any shifts in commitment to manned space programs depends in large part upon how the leadership frames its response, said Richard Bloom, Ph.D., in an interview with PT. Bloom, a professor of political and clinical psychology at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz., said that if the program were simply cancelled because of the Columbia crash, the population would perceive this negatively, and both a political and psychological backlash would likely ensue. On the other hand, if any reduction or cancellation were conveyed as an intermediate step with a return to manned space flight planned later on, people would likely react in a more positive way.
In the near term, however, Bloom doubts significant changes will occur exactly because the symbolic value is so great. "There will be some kind of manned program in the short-term, mid-term and long-term," Bloom said.
But if that prediction is wrong, Bloom said there could be some "collective psychology that [plays] out in this country ... even folks who haven't been following the program ... would begin to think about it and experience almost a sense of mourning."