The Last Frontier: Going Beyond the Limits

April 1, 2003
Volume 20, Issue 4

In the wake of the deaths of seven astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia, many critics have called for an end to manned space flights. Psychiatrists, however, point to the intangible benefits--including the societal values and desired psychological traits that are modeled by astronauts.

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.

"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."