The New Right Stuff

Twelve-year-old Erika Hazlett, a Scholastic News Kid Reporter, recently asked physicist Kip Thorne if she would see a lunar or Martian colony in her lifetime.

“The technology is certainly there,” Thorne said. “I do believe that space exploration is crucial for the future of the human race.”

If Thorne is right, many of today’s kids will not just work in careers that we can only imagine. They will live in a place that has neither a lawn nor a sidewalk.

As anthropologist Jack Stuster said at a recent panel discussion at the World Science Festival: "Although Mars commands our attention, the asteroids demand it." 

Stuster, who is the author of Bold Endeavors: Lessons From Polar and Space Exploration, notes that the "right stuff" astronauts of yesteryear—stoic military pilots, all of them men—have given way to individuals, male and female, with an increasingly broad range of skills.

Who will own the future? Experts in psychology, ergonomics, behavioral science, and personnel selection, to name a few specialties. One trait that will unite all of these individuals, Stuster told me, is the ability to get along well with others.

Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.


What qualities does one look for in astronaut candidates?

Originally, astronauts were selected for their piloting skills, which involve quick reactions in emergency situations—in an environment that is inherently risky. That changed over time to include scientists, engineers, and physicians. But all astronauts are still trained to respond promptly to changing conditions and emergency situations.

Individuals selected by NASA today tend to be very action-oriented, whether they’re preparing for a space flight or a year at an Antarctic research station. They’re very active people, both physically and mentally.

However, for long-duration isolation, that’s absolutely the wrong kind of person. When you’re confined to a small habitat, whether it’s in Antarctica, the Arctic, or on a spacecraft bound for Mars, your opportunities for activity are greatly constrained. A person who requires a lot of physical activity—riding a bicycle, going on long hikes, or swimming in the ocean—will be very unhappy when confined to a small habitat.

The irony is that the kind of people who are attracted to such missions often don’t have the right personality or disposition. NASA hasn’t really addressed that yet because missions have been limited to six or seven months on the International Space Station (ISS). This will certainly become an issue when we select people to spend three years traveling to Mars.

Our first one-year experiment is now underway with astronaut Scott Kelly, who will remain on the ISS for just under a year. His mission will be interesting primarily because of our ability to measure the physiological changes that he will undergo and how well efforts to maintain his muscle mass and bone density work during the flight.


Isn't that a long time to be away from home?

No one doubts that Scott will do well psychologically or behaviorally. We have plenty of evidence that humans can endure almost anything in order to be among the first to do it. It’s when things become routine that the tolerance for inconveniences and the lack of amenities is lowered. Scott will do great and so will [Mikhail] Kornienko, his Russian crewmate. Russians have spent a year in space before, and they’ve done fine.

Humans have endured longer durations than that during the polar exploration period. Norwegians Fridtjof Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen survived in the Arctic during the winter of 1895-’96, confined to a 6’- by 10’-foot hut made of stones and walrus hides. Their entire world was illuminated by the pale glow of a blubber lamp. They had nothing to read. They would sleep for 17 hours out of 24, only venturing outside to carve off a chunk of polar bear meat or walrus meat to bring back in and cook. They did that for nine months. Then, in the spring, they burst out of their den, fixed their kayaks, and paddled off, eventually making it back to civilization. Humans have endured very austere conditions for very long periods and performed well. So we don’t expect there to be behavioral problems on a one-year expedition to the ISS.

There are lots of examples of behavioral and psychological problems occurring on polar expeditions of the past. However, those people were not selected with the care that astronauts and cosmonauts are selected.


What benefits do we derive from space exploration?

Many of the things that we take for granted, that keep people alive, were developed for the space program. The miniaturization that led to pacemakers is derived from space technology. Many medical devices that are now routine were originally developed to monitor the physiology of space crews.

Images taken by NASA illustrate geological and climatological trends that are of great interest to us. A NASA administrator was asked recently: “Why are you concerned with Earth?” Well, Earth is in space, for one thing. NASA gains unique insights into possible threats to Earth. The Kennedy Space Center is not going to be of much use to NASA when it’s underwater. According to projected trends, that will eventually be the case.

There are also the intangibles that NASA provides in the way of a vision for the future and the very real issue of our species being limited to one planet. Plenty of evidence points to the potentially devastating impact of objects hitting Earth. This includes everything from relatively small events like the Meteor Crater in Arizona, which affect areas of several hundred or several thousand square miles, to large meteors that threaten all life on Earth.

Each week, astronomers discover new objects that could threaten Earth, either as localized events or extinction-class events. Most of the very large objects are known, but not all of them. Objects the size of a car or a bus are continually being discovered. Because they are relatively small, they only become visible when they are approaching Earth.

Some of these are within the orbits of the Moon. That is, they pass between the Moon and the Earth. On a cosmic scale, that is really a close call. One of these days, an object is going to hit us. There’s a 70 percent chance that it’s going to land in the ocean because the Earth is 70 percent water. That means there’s a 30 percent chance that it’s going to land on solid ground. If it does, it could be very disruptive, especially if it hits a densely-populated area.

I’m very much in favor of President Obama’s plan to learn more about asteroids, to have us visit asteroids as a stepping-stone, no pun intended, to go back to the Moon and, eventually, to Mars. Otherwise we are vulnerable, tied as we are to one world.


What have we learned from the astronauts' experiences on the ISS?

The missions have demonstrated that people from different countries can work together for a common goal under very austere and difficult conditions. Russians, Americans, Japanese, Germans, French, and others have all been represented on the ISS in the past 10 or 15 years. There might be small differences in approach or work habits, but those differences are overcome, and participants get along fabulously. They know that their survival in an emergency situation will depend on each other's prompt and coordinated response.

Almost unanimously, the ISS astronauts cite their number-one goal as getting along with fellow crewmembers. They make a concerted effort to do that, and they're very successful. They're sensitive to each other's feelings and cultural differences. They also have a wonderful perspective on Earth. They can look down from the windows, and they see one planet with no boundaries.

Photo courtesy of NASA