Research Resource: The Psychology of Space Exploration

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.

The book is available for sale through NASA here, but you can download a free copy here.

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.

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Research Resource: The Psychology of Space Exploration — 8 Comments

  1. I’m definitely going to get the book, too. I need it for the novel I’m revising, if nothing else.

    The observation that mixed-gender crews had less conflict and more cohesion is interesting. Some years back, there was a Danish army study about crews in tanks that found mixed-gender crews were the most effective as well.

  2. Glad to pass it on! I learned about it at Launch Pad 2011 — “getting the science right” — and although we touched only briefly on psychological aspects of space flight, I wanted to know more.

    And having the download free is a wonderful use of our tax dollars!

  3. You made a Hercule Poirot reference! 🙂

    There is a fair amount to be said about engineering – training the person for space though, when one reads of Virginia’s first 150 years of indentures and colonists selected without any consideration of their abilities in connection to the environment in which they would be thrown. Things would have gone much better if these people had been trained in the work and what there was to expect — and if they’d been given the proper clothes, tools, materials and supplies too. And if they would have planted food crops instead of the cash crop of tobacco on every square inch of land.

    Love, C.

  4. Training astronauts and others to adapt to space travel is one thing, but another thing I always find fascinating about sf writing is the unpredictability of the surroundings and how characters adapt to it. In my latest novel, for instance, we have two teenage Earth characters who arrive on an alien world. One of them is thrilled to be there, fascinate by what could be waiting around every corner. The other wishes only to return home, and is nervous about the unknown and unpredictable elements of this new world.

    If you train to pilot a NASA ship into space, I imagine you can pretty much anticipate what problems you are likely to encounter, simply because it’s been done on a regular basis for many years now. But if you suddenly arrive on another planet, you are totally alone in the experience, and have no idea what kind of life forms or perils could await you. Whether it’s outer space or the Sahara desert, I love playing with that unfamiliar, potentially hostile environment and seeing how characters deal with it.

    As for the book in question, it’s an interesting reference source. And I am especially interested in the sociological aspect of it; the “John Wayne” image and the idea that female astronauts should have a different noun to describe them. Interesting that political (in)correctness has also entered this domain, but then of course, why shouldn’t it? Interesting too that mixed-gender crews suffer less conflict and cohesion than single-sex ones.