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Stress Comes Standard Issue in Space Program

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Stress Comes Standard Issue in Space Program


Stress Comes Standard Issue in Space Program

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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For many, the most startling story of the week has probably been the arrest of Captain Lisa Nowak. She's charged with attempting to murder a woman whom she considered a rival for another astronaut's affection. Astronaut Nowak allegedly drove 900 miles - from Houston to Orlando - to confront Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman in a parking lot with a wig and pepper spray.

Author Stephen Harrigan has studied the lives of astronauts during the 99 percent of the time they're not circling the planet. In his highly acclaimed novel "Challenger Park" there is a woman astronaut, a mother, who is at the center of this story. Stephen Harrigan joins us now from the studios of NPR West. Mr. Harrigan, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. STEPHEN HARRIGAN (Author, "Challenger Park"): Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: And let's state this for the record. You don't know any of the principles involved in this story.

Mr. HARRIGAN: No, I don't.

SIMON: But I think you might be able to tell us a great deal about the pressure which astronauts have to contend with. And not just when they go up into space.

Mr. HARRIGAN: You know, it would be irresponsible for me to speculate on this particular case, or on the generalities of the space program from it. But I do think it is a crucible in a way, training for a space shuttle mission. It's a very intense, very bonding experience.

The closest I can come to thinking of a comparison would be something like a movie set, where you have all these people who are thrown together in this, you know, gigantic, incredibly important enterprise, at least to them, and there's a kind of narrative quality to it, that it moves through a cycle and it comes to an end.

And you can only speculate when you have a cycle like that that involves life and death, as the space shuttle missions do, what kinds of pressures and intensities can develop in a situation like that?

SIMON: Must be hard to pick up life in a mundane marriage after that.

Mr. HARRIGAN: I think it would be very difficult. I mean, of course there are many, many wonderful marriages that astronauts and other people in the space program have. But you know, astronauts are completely human. And there are fractured, fraying marriages, you know, family relationships that are not working out because of, you know, the incredible demands upon these people.

So - and added to that is just the sheer intensity of the simulations, which are very, you know, very draining, I think, for the astronauts. None of this, of course, explains anything. But it kind of maybe shines a light on the kind of environment in which a truly strange breakdown like this, as one assumes it's sort of a breakdown, how that could occur.

SIMON: The psychological evaluation that NASA does of astronauts before they're selected to the program, are those psychological tests they give intended to appraise their suitability for flight but maybe not for everyday life?

Mr. HARRIGAN: From what I understand, the tests are relatively perfunctory and they address kind of certain key issues. I think they do address suitability for flight. But in terms of preparing you or predicting whether an individual can bear up under the totally unpredictable pressures of even a normal family life is almost impossible to say.

SIMON: So for example, you could have an astronaut who would have enormous poise in confronting some kind of crisis in the course of a space flight, but on the other hand become totally unglued if their marriage of 19 years begins to come apart.

Mr. HARRIGAN: I think that's true for astronauts and I think it's for a lot of other people.

SIMON: For the rest of us too, yeah.

Mr. HARRIGAN: I think in some ways the acute crises are easier to deal with and the kind of chronic lingering malaise of real life.

SIMON: Stephen Harrigan, the author of "Challenger Park," thank you very much.

Mr. HARRIGAN: Thank you.

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