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Prof brings humanity to cold realities of space travel

By Clifton B. Parker on February 14, 2003 in University

Al Harrison says the recent Columbia shuttle disaster affects people in different ways than the 1986 tragedy.

“There is widespread sadness,” said the psychology professor and NASA adviser. “That’s still the same, but it’s different than in 1986 when the Challenger shuttle exploded. That was the first shuttle we lost. It was much more immediate with the visual impact of seeing the families’ reactions at the launch pad. The Columbia was farther away, a fireball, and wasn’t front and center on TV. We’re also living in far more troubled times, and that may affect our reactions.”

Harrison has been studying space psychology since the 1970s. He’s a member of a NASA work group on “human factors”; the International Academy of Astronautics’ study group on earth-threatening asteroids and comets; and the permanent  Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) committee. He’s written four books on all types of space issues, including the human response to extraterrestrial life, comparisons to Antarctica and outer space, and human requirements for extended spaceflight.

“It’s easy to become confident and blase,” noted Harrison, “but episodes like the Columbia remind us just how very dangerous space travel is.”

Harrison has been in contact in recent days with friends at NASA. He describes them as “shocked and bereaved. It’s a close-knit community that has just experienced a sudden, swift loss.”

For Harrison, space travel is more than a physical act powered by hydrogen rocket fuel. It’s as much an act of the mind. Understanding the thoughts and feelings of astronauts and space travelers is one of the most important elements in successful galactic travel, he said.

“Four key issues exist in space flight psychology,” he said.

One involves “moving beyond minimal conditions” in space craft to conditions where a “better quality of life” is possible, he said. The second is that, given the extreme conditions, space travel must “accommodate diversity” in languages, cultures and backgrounds. The third is that astronauts must be “empowered” to make decisions aboard their craft rather than have ground control call all the shots. The last — and this is the hard one — is making space travel accessible to regular people.

Harrison’s space interest was sparked by a childhood interest in science fiction and the Apollo missions in the 1960s. The turning point came in 1978 when NASA called upon experts like him to study the “psychological requirements” of space flight.

“That was 25 years ago,” he said, “and it changed my life.”

Harrison delved into all kinds of otherwordly endeavors, including the possibilities of contact with beings from afar. His 1997 book was titled, After Contact: The Human Response to Extraterrestrial Life.

He agrees with scientists who suspect life exists somewhere else in the universe. Beyond this, however, speculation runs rampant.

“We’re going out on a limb as we don’t have an experiential basis for dealing with this kind of thing. The Spanish discoverers arriving in the New World will be nothing compared to this — if it happens,” he said.

Harrison calls the extraterrestrial issue a “strange mixture of science, religion and folklore, and a really messy area.”

Then there’s the excitement factor. “Sure, we could end up with a spaceship over the White House, but it’s more likely that one day we hear a dial tone at a distance or that we discover microbial life once existed on Mars.” In other words, it might be anticlimatic.

In pop culture, science fiction continues to generate great interest in unseen worlds, but it does not necessarily help “plan or prepare” us for a close encounter, Harrison said.

Beyond these esoteric topics, Harrison keeps his feet on the ground in his other role as director of the Internship and Career Center on campus. He’s been serving the center since 1995, and it’s one of his most rewarding activities.

“It’s hands-on work with an immediate impact,” he said. “You can see the results of what you’re doing and it’s about moving both the campus and students into the future.”

Harrison pays credit to the staff he has worked with through the years. “Sometimes those in academics don’t notice how hard and well the staff work. They are dedicated, creative and move things along on time,” he said.

Harrison is originally from Massachusetts. He earned his undergraduate degree in psychology from UC Santa Barbara and his doctorate in social psychology from the University of Michigan. He has been the chair of the psychology department, an executive associate dean in the College of Letters and Science, and faculty assistant to the chancellor.

Since coming to Davis in 1967, Harrison has witnessed significant changes. For one, the academic life is more challenging. “Academic careers are much tougher than they were in the 1960s. They’re more reliant on external funding and contracts than ever before, and the fields are simply more competitive. On the other hand, we have tremendous academic freedom on this campus, even in the non-science areas, and that isn’t always true everywhere else. We have moved front and center in research and we have top quality faculty coming in.”

What’s the future hold for Harrison — or space travel, for that matter?

“We’ll see what impact the Columbia tragedy has,” he said, “but we’re now reaching for missions beyond the space station and perhaps to the moon, again, and even Mars. That’s exciting.”

He’s sure to be part of it.

Media contact(s)

Clifton B. Parker, Dateline, (530) 752-1932,