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Space as a Human Frontier

Gerald Cecil

Spacefaring: The Human Dimension. Albert A. Harrison. xviii + 324 pp. University of California Press, 2001. $27.50

With space tourist Dennis Tito back on earth and Titanic director James Cameron searching for a space script to shoot on location, Spacefaring: The Human Dimension is a timely book. Its concern is how the harsh and unfamiliar conditions in space affect human performance and behavior, a subject that Albert A. Harrison, a psychologist, has studied for nearly 20 years.

Harrison argues that as space travel becomes more common, social factors, such as group living skills and coping ability, will become as important as job competence. Perhaps NASA will then abandon its antipsychological bias and acknowledge the impact of such factors on mission success. He anticipates a time when missions will include not only scientific and technical experts but also "people from the hospitality industry, space marines, and manual laborers."

The book is well written, covers a broad range of research and makes several interesting points on almost every page; its organization is clear and logical. Excellent notes point to popular and technical articles in, for example, journals of behavioral psychology. The text is marred by only a few typographical errors, most notably a reference to the "Hubbell" Space Telescope.

Harrison first focuses on lessons about habitability and crew operations learned from stays on early space stations. He discusses how these insights have influenced the design and operation of the International Space Station (ISS), in particular crew accommodations, scheduling of assigned duties and availability of tools.

Harrison describes crew selection and training. To build a cohesive team and develop procedures for a 10-day shuttle mission, career astronauts train 50 to 60 hours a week for 40 weeks. He asserts that, in contrast, only one week of training in relatively "luxurious circumstances" should suffice to qualify the moderately healthy and wealthy for a stint in a future space hotel.

Suborbital (and eventually orbital) tours will be considerably cheaper than the several million dollars Tito paid to enjoy his view from the ISS?perhaps $100,000 for a suborbital flight at 100 kilometers. Will there be a market for such tours? According to Harrison, tourists on a leisurely around-the-world sea cruise have been known to pay as much as a staggering $350,000 for the best accommodations. Three Japanese companies spent more than $40 million during the 1990s to plan for lunar resorts (with golf courses?). Investors are spending $1 billion to develop reusable rockets, which promise cheaper access to space, although test flights are still a few years away.

In the middle section of the book, Harrison discusses ways in which astronauts can combat feelings of isolation and lack of control during extended missions. Lessons come from Antarctic expeditions and submarine operations. (An acquaintance who sailed on an attack sub for several years said afterward that the best skill is to be "easily amused.") Harrison discusses the stresses on and resulting psychological withdrawal by astronauts Jerry Linenger and C. Michael Foale during their stays on Mir, where their enthusiasm was sapped by battles with an untrustworthy mission control.

In the penultimate chapter, Harrison discusses the challenges we will perhaps one day face in crewing fast and slow starships, which would have to use highly advanced technologies to travel for single or multiple generations between stars. He ends the book by asking how we can restore the dream of space. Many who thrill at the sight of a shuttle chasing the ISS across the dawn sky may dream of joining an astronaut crew. But in reality, as we know from housekeeping reports on ISS activities, crew members spend much of their time stowing equipment and performing routine maintenance tasks. Fires and a collision dampened enthusiasm for working on Mir. Interest in Apollo waned even as video footage from landing sites grew more breathtaking. But perhaps some dreams will be inspired by the experience of remotely driving a minirover between Apollo sites (an opportunity that may soon be available to the general public) or by the awe-inspiring images that the Cassini spacecraft and Huygens probe are expected to provide of Saturn's rings and the descent to Titan's surface.?Gerald Cecil, Physics and Astronomy, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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