As writers, we often place our characters in environments with which we are not personally familiar. Whether it be in space, on another planet, in Siberia or Faerie, or in some other time like Renaissance Italy or prehistoric Australia, we use our imaginations — and, when appropriate, our research — to create these settings. No science fiction writer, placing a story in outer space, would ignore the physics of space flight, the effects of microgravity, or the basics of astronomy. Yet we — or I, at any rate — consistently assume that I understand the effects of constrained, dangerous environments on human behavior. I’m not saying we get it wrong; I’m saying we get it ignorantly.
I don’t think it’s any wonder, at least for American writers. Throughout much of the history of American space exploration and American participation in international ventures, there has been a notable antipathy towards gathering data on human behavior, both individual and group, in space. The early decades of the US space program were marked by an emphasis on “the right stuff,” that is, pre-selecting and engineering the human astronaut. For a long time, NASA prohibited the assessment of individual astronaut performance in part because of the popular association of psychology with mental illness and long-term psychotherapy. Heaven forbid that an astronaut admit to any weakness (and any emotional or mental distress must surely be overcome by sheer force of will)!
Psychological research or, worse yet, the faintest possibility that a mission would be compromised by psychological factors could be a public relations nightmare. … For astronauts, the stereotype of the right stuff helps maintain flight status. It deters snooping and prying that might suggest a real or imagined blemish that could lead to mission disqualification, a most undesirable personal consequence. After all, part of the heroic myth is that under the greatest of adversities, people with the right stuff can still get the job done! Why risk all by getting involved in a research program that could lead to new reasons for disqualification? George Low, manager of Project Apollo, advised subordinates that identity issues, past or present, were off-limits and that personal hang-ups should be put aside in favor of the mission. Michael Collins and his colleagues liked the John Wayne–type image created for the early astronauts and did not want it tarnished. Flying in space was a macho, masculine endeavor, and there were those who made an effort to reserve the term “astronaut” for men, referring to women who sought to fly in space as “astronautrix,” “astro-nettes,” “feminauts,” and “space girls.”
Over time, and with the increasing appreciation of how engineering social environments could support individual and hence mission performance, agency attitudes toward psychological and cross-cultural research have become more positive.
I think it behooves us as writers to consider what is known about how groups of human actually behave in space. The results are relevant to other environments, too. Earth-analog situations (such as submarines or expeditions to Antarctica) have been used to study the effects of stress and isolation, with many characteristics in common with space flight; it stands to reason that what we’ve learned about how people behave in space might illuminate our characters in similar circumstances.
Thanks to some recommendations through the good folks at Launch Pad 2011, I discovered NASA’s Psychology of Space Exploration: Conpemporary Research in Historical Perspective (edited by Douglas A. Vakoch). There’s a certain amount of psychological-ese and research methodology to wade through, but with a little effort (good to exercise the “little gray cells”), I found a treasure trove of insights and story ideas.
Some of the findings surprised me, like how people adapt (or not) to being part of an international, multi-cultural crew. It turns out that the host-guest dichotomy causes more problems than cultural or national diversity. Yet flying as a minority enhances positive aspects, such as “a growing internal recognition of transcendental values that is often found among astronauts and is apparently not thwarted — and may in fact be enhanced — by being the “odd person out” in the crew. Also, comments about one’s family were more frequent in minority crew, perhaps to compensate for some degree of social isolation but which was not found for majority crewmembers.
In both spaceflight and expedition studies, the longer the mission and the greater the threat from the physical environment, the greater need for autonomy and greater conflict with mission-control authority. It also turns out that mixed-gender crews experience less conflict and more cohesion than all-male crews. Taking photographs of Earth was the favorite leisure pastime and greatly contributed to a sense of well-being (“salutogenic” — a word worth the price of the book!)
Now, much of this is intuitive, and I do think that we as writers get it right more often than not, but that doesn’t detract from the value of knowing what actually happens and how we know it. I found the cross-cultural findings particularly fascinating. Of course, the studies in this book describe experiences in the infancy of a space flight program, and much of the cross-cultural material pertains to the former Soviet Union. Nevertheless, I found it a rewarding and informative read, and recommend it, whether you write stories set in space or not.
Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her novels Jaydium and Northlight, and short story “The Casket of Brass” are available as multiformat ebooks here on Book View Cafe.