Psychology of Space Exploration: Contemporary Research in Historical Perspective

  • Published

Psychology of Space Exploration: Contemporary Research in Historical Perspective edited by Douglas A. Vakoch. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2011, 254 pp..

This volume, a collection of eight essays along with introductory and closing material, provides varied perspectives on psychology and its relationship to astronauts and the history of space exploration. The chapters cover a variety of subjects: the checkered history of psychology and the US space program (chap. 1), behavioral health (chap. 2), analogs between earth exploration and space exploration (chap. 3), the possibility that taking photos of Earth from space improves the mental health of astronauts (chap. 4), the role of simulators in managing negative interactions in space crews (chap. 5), the effect of gender composition on crew cohesion during long-duration space missions (chap. 6), postmission reflections of multinational space crews (chap. 7), and spaceflight and cross-cultural psychology (chap. 8).

These essays not only span a number of subjects but also utilize multiple approaches. Two of the them are heavily statistical in nature, one seeking solid quantitative data to support the idea that taking photos of Earth is a beneficial experience and the other presenting evidence that tensions arise when multinational crew members are guests on the spaceships of other nations. Other chapters prefer a more qualitative approach, the one on spaceflight and cross-cultural psychology using ordinal rankings without known data points to examine such matters as long-term viewpoint between nations as well as patriarchal or matriarchal attitudes (pp. 188–89). In such cases, the lack of relevant data points makes the conclusions a bit tentative at best. In at least one case, the coauthors seek to make a politically motivated point in support of more women in space—a position that the accompanying empirical evidence directly contradicts. They make the entirely unsupported claim that women take a more interpersonal and caring approach when dealing with stress but admit that evidence shows that mixed-gender crews adversely affected performance at Antarctic bases, in naval vessels, and on offshore oil rigs (p. 140). The contributors blame this on immaturity, a lack of training, and poor personnel selection, persisting in supporting their politically motivated point despite the mixed-to-adverse empirical evidence at hand.

The biased political tone of some of the pieces will likely offend and alienate some readers. These include the chapter on mixed-gender crews as well as the introduction on psychology and the US space program, which praises Soviet interest in psychology while criticizing its neglect by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for several decades (pp. 6–7). It also questions the United States’ political will to continue publicly funded research on psychology as it relates to spaceflight (p. 15). Otherwise, the number and scope of topics likely will appeal to most readers. Several essays, for example, comment on the importance of analogs between Antarctic exploration missions and space exploration, including the comparison of hazards between Antarctica and space and the role of that continent in providing a good staging area for training crews in the environmental rigors (e.g., isolation) of space.

This collection of essays aims to demonstrate the importance of psychology in successful space explorations, examining the past through both anecdotal accounts and data-driven research. The book also points to future goals such as long-term moon and Mars exploration that will require great attention to the concerns of the people engaging in such dangerous, lengthy journeys. Several of the chapters address the widespread concern among astronauts and NASA that too much psychological information about astronauts would hinder crew morale and lead others to question whether astronauts with admitted mental health issues had “the right stuff” to enter space (pp. 6, 35, 198).

Although the book appears to have a major political goal of legitimizing the role of psychology in the design of spaceships and the training of astronauts, it also offers a variety of intriguing glances at what makes space so fascinating. Further it makes useful recommendations on improving spaceflight as we deal with the reality of increasing space tourism and longer, more isolated space exploration further from Earth. Fortunately, regarding most of the essays, the contributors’ political aims do not overwhelm the information they convey, making Psychology of Space Exploration of interest to readers intrigued by manned space exploration.

Nathan Albright

Portland, Oregon

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."