CCNet ESSAY: PSYCHOLOGY'S ROLE IN PROTECTING THE EARTH AGAINST
This paper chronicles the part played by psychology in a sequence of
four workshops, convened to address various aspects of the possibility of an astronomical catastrophe in our time.
By Harvey Wichman, Ph.D.
Aerospace Psychology Laboratory
Claremont McKenna College
Paper Presented at the Joint Convention of
The American Psychological Association
& The Canadian Psychological Association
August 10, 2003
APA Division 21
Applied Experimental and Engineering Psychology
In their new astrobiology book, The Life and Death of Planet Earth,
Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee (2002) describe the natural life cycle of
stars such as our sun and the planets that circle them. They describe
several possible scenarios for the end of life on earth. If one of the
other scenarios does not take place first, life on Earth will definitely
end when the sun, having used up too much of its hydrogen will become a
Red Giant Star and heat the Earth until every living thing, no matter
how deep under ground, is dead. This is the certain end of life on
A much earlier, and quite likely way for life (or at least life as we
know it) to end is the way life almost ended 65 million years ago when
either an asteroid or a comet crashed into the Earth. The consequences
of this collision caused the extinction of the dinosaurs and probably
2/3rds of all life on Earth at that time. However enough life survived
the harsh environmental aftermath and gave rise to mammals, a highly
adaptable species that even survived the last Ice Age.
In July of 1994 humans for the first time witnessed the crash of a large
Near Earth Object (NEO) into one of the planets in the solar system when
Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, missing the other planets crashed into Jupiter
with results, "...that have been simply spectacular and beyond
expectations" (Shoemaker-Levy, NASA web site).
In a recent interview on National Public Radio, Dr Roger Launius, former
NASA Chief Historian and now Chair of the Space History Department at
the National Air and Space Museum, was asked why we should be exploring
space in the first place. He gave five reasons, the first four of which
are pretty commonly heard, science, economic potential, military
advantage, and national prestige. It is the fifth one that is relevant
here. That reason was, "Ultimately, we can't survive on this planet.
Somewhere out there is an asteroid with our number on it" (Launius, NPR
In fulfilling the promise of its title, Psychology's Role in Protecting
the Earth Against Meteors, this paper chronicles the part played by
psychology in a sequence of four workshops, convened to address various
aspects of the possibility of an astronomical catastrophe in our time.
Workshop One-The Threat
In March of 2001 the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics
(AIAA) held a Workshop in Seville, Spain, addressing challenges of the
new millennium. Most of the major players in the international space
community participated including the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs.
Ivan Bekey, former Director of NASA's Office of Advanced Concepts,
organized one of the several working groups. Its title was: An
International Approach to Detecting Earth-Threatening Asteroids and
Comets and Responding to the Threat They Pose. The mandate to those
attending the conference included making recommendations about how the
international community should approach the issues posed by these
One thing that derived from this conference was that we now have the
capability of finding asteroids and comets long before they get close to
Earth. Thus for the first time in history we have the lead time to
prepare ourselves for a collision whether that mean getting ready to
intercept and alter the path of a near Earth object or simply preparing
ourselves to survive the collision.
The published results of this conference made it clear that the Earth is
daily bombarded by small meteors and periodically by quite large ones
like the one that created Meteor Crater in Arizona. Occasionally a very
large meteor or comet strikes the Earth (like the one that caused the
extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago). The only ambiguity
is, "when will the next one strike?" The ultimate certainty of such an
event made those present realize that, if their mandate were to be
fulfilled, two more workshops were required: One to deal with the
psychological and socio-cultural aspects of an impending global disaster
and another to deal with the possibility of mitigating such a threat.
Thus Mr. Bekey was asked by the AIAA to collaborate with a social
scientist to organize a second workshop to address the social issues and
then collaborate on a third workshop to address mitigation.
It might seem at first that there is no significant role for psychology
to play in protecting the Earth from a disastrous impact by an asteroid.
Taken by itself a collision between a large asteroid and the Earth is
not a disaster it is simply a big rock in space striking a planet. It
doesn't become a disaster until people and human behavior are involved.
When physical scientists and engineers realized this they invited
psychologists to participate in the collaborative teams that are
required for the modern science and engineering activities required to
deal with planetary defense. This paper is the story of one such
Workshop Two-Social/Psychological Issues
Mr. Bekey knew the author of this paper because we had worked jointly
from time to time on various aerospace projects. He sought my
collaboration and together we organized a workshop that was held in
April 2002. It was hosted by the Western Psychological Association at
its annual convention and was co-sponsored by the Kravis Leadership
Institute of Claremont McKenna College.
We surveyed various disciplines to determine the relevant research and
who was doing it. From this survey a list of the most eminent relevant
scholars was assembled. These scholars were then contacted to determine
their interest in such a conference. Everyone contacted showed
enthusiastic interest and strongly encouraged the organizers to bring
the project to fruition. It was encouraging to find out that the social
scientists that specialized in the areas of disaster management agreed
with the aerospace scientists that a conference such as this was
certainly needed if not overdue. In the end, six papers were
commissioned from scholars in the fields of astronomy, psychology,
anthropology, policy analysis and sociology.
Workshops of this sort have much in common with scholarly review papers.
They are bibliographic in that they explore the far corners of related
research niches to find out what is known about a specific topic. Then
an effort is made to summarize the disparate pieces of information into
some sort of coherent body of information. This stage often produces
hypotheses and the beginnings of a theory that relates different aspects
of the information. The final stage is to suggest the most likely
directions for fruitful future research. Here, workshops differ from
review papers in that the workshop consists of dialogue among many
people who attempt to use their collective wisdom to accomplish what the
writer of a review paper usually does alone.
Here are some things that distilled out of the papers presented at our
· There is already a sizeable, rather esoteric literature on disaster
management but it relates almost entirely to disasters of a local and
regional nature. Little thought has been given to global level disasters
beyond the early cold war writings about such things as nuclear winters.
· There are two primary differences between the disasters covered in the
current literature and a disaster caused by the crash of a large meteor.
1. Disasters usually have short warning periods as in the case of
storms, or no warning as in the case of Chernobyl or earthquakes.
However, warnings about astronomical threats could have lead times
measured in years.
2. The natural and technological disasters we have experience with are
local or regional in scope with relatively short recovery times. A
disaster from a large meteor would be global in scope and the
consequences much longer lasting.
· The long anticipatory period can be psychologically and socially as
disastrous as the event itself. Coping with this fact is where
psychology must play a key role.
· The monumental scope of a meteoric disaster requires management and
leadership techniques that go beyond the scale of those typically
employed that will allow joint activity among people with very different
motivational goals, skill levels, cultures, religions, languages and
wealth levels. Management and leadership studies are two important areas
· Strict hierarchical decision making models don't work well in
disasters because lines of communication are disrupted.
· We need a triage model that goes beyond the current, locally effective
medical model-one that is applicable to large and diverse social groups.
· Threats from astronomical objects present the worst possible
conditions for policy decision making because of:
1. The high false alarm rate.
2. The long periods of inadequate data with which to effectively conduct
probability weighted decision-making.
3. The terrible consequences if the event does occur.
· Since almost all warnings will be false alarms rapid systems for
uncertainty reduction are critical.
· Much of the information about managing astronomical disasters is
applicable to other types of global disasters such as super volcanism or
· September 11th, 2001 showed that some disasters with very localized
destruction scenes could only be coped with at a global level.
· Two kinds of psychological trauma follow a disaster:
1. Acute Stress Disorders, ASD, very early onset.
2. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders, delayed onset, triggering events not
· The techniques of modern Community Psychology with its emphasis on
symptom prevention are probably more relevant to the long anticipation
period while the techniques of Clinical Psychology with its emphasis on
treatment will be more relevant to the aftermath period.
These bullet items give a sense of the kinds of things that were
presented in the various papers that were prepared. The second half of
the workshop involved an intensive give and take period that was
moderated by Psychologist Ronald Riggio, Director of the Kravis
Leadership Institute. Here are some things that distilled out of the
dialogue among paper presenters and the other attendees.
· Some level of perceived control over events will be the most important
mechanism for managing worldwide public stress during the anticipation
· Keeping stress levels within optimum ranges is the best way to assure
effective physical and decision making performance before, during and
after a disastrous event (re: the Yerkes-Dodson Law)
· New psychotherapy models need to be developed that go beyond
one-on-one and small-group therapies, and that are not culturally
· Perhaps a new field of psychological epidemiology needs to be
· In terms of cost-benefit ratios, optimum solutions are the only ones
feasible. Attempting to do too much too soon can be as counterproductive
as doing too little too late.
· The results of this workshop should be published because information
leads to perceived control. The final document needs a good review of
the current disaster management literature as well as more input from:
1. Applied economics
2. International politics.
3. Religious studies.
The results of this workshop were then reported to The AIAA at the World
Space Congress in October of 2002 (Wichman, 2002) and the organizers of
the conference are serving as editors of a book to be published
following the suggestions of the participants for expanding the scope
beyond the papers presented at the conference.
Mr. Bekey then collaborated with Air Force General Simon P.
Worden, an astronomer, to hold a workshop on mitigation at the
University of Houston in conjunction with the World Space Congress in
August of 2002. This workshop brought together 16 persons including Mr.
Bekey and me from backgrounds in government, academe, industry and the
military who, in the judgment of the organizers, were collectively
qualified to fulfill the following mandate:
To explore the issues pertaining to the interception and negation of
threatening asteroids and comets, and to produce a set of findings
and recommendations for a specific proposed program of near-term
Discussions of the following sorts of issues were undertaken and and the
conference concluded with specific recommendations.
· Management-Nations interested in meteor and comet threats must
organize an unambiguous international process for how decisions are
made, who will make them, and how to provide threat assessment to
· Physics-More needs to be known about the structure of meteors and
comets and the effects on those structures by forces brought to bear
upon them, especially in the realm of weightlessness (e.g., antipodal
spallation and the Yarkovsky Effect).
· Mitigation-Theoretical mitigating techniques have been identified
(movies have even been made about some of them) using lasers, explosives
and thrusters. But studies must be conducted to empirically determine
what will really work.
· Research Plan-A detailed outline of sequential studies was developed
culminating with an experiment to land a spacecraft on an asteroid and
change its course to establish baseline information about actually
altering comet and asteroid trajectories.
Workshop Two had shown that a critical time for the general public and
world political leaders will be the time between identifying a large
near earth object on a collision course and the time the object either
strikes the Earth, is deflected away or turns out to be a very near
miss. Anticipation is very arousing, and when negative, it generates
anxiety. As arousal levels rise above optimum the performance of
decision-making and other types of cognitive activities will diminish.
With high levels of arousal and emotions such as anxiety, the rate of
psychosomatic disorders will rise precipitously.
If leaders could have only one tool for keeping arousal and anxiety low
the best would be if the populace maintained a sense of perceived
control over events. That is, as long as they didn't feel helpless but
rather, that someone could do something about this, we would have
provided an inoculation against the ills caused by massive arousal and
fear. But how could such a thing be accomplished with this workshop's
Here is the solution. Instead of spending a number of years doing
successively more complex research projects that eventually culminate in
sending a spacecraft to an NEO to change its trajectory, do that first.
Of course, do all the other research projects too and in the order
specified, just do the last one first.
In 2001 the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) launched a small spacecraft
called NEAR-Shoemaker and caused it to intercept a large NEO named Eros
and fly in formation with it (NEAR-Shoemaker, NASA website). Next they
directed the spacecraft to circle and go into orbit around this
twenty-one-mile-long potato shaped space rock. Finally, after all the
measurements and photographs specified in the research plan had been
completed it was time to shut the spacecraft down and abandon it. It was
then that the flight team decided to try something unplanned-to land the
spacecraft on Eros-even though the craft wasn't designed for that. They
began a gradual descent and made a successful soft landing. They even
took pictures from the spacecraft afterwards as it sat on the surface of
Eros. NEAR is sitting on Eros to this day. In short, we can do it
because we already have done it.
All we need now is to repeat the flight with a spacecraft that could
attach itself to an NEO and then use its motor to change the trajectory
of the NEO providing at least preliminary baseline data about the energy
levels necessary to move large objects in weightlessness.
Thus we see that the results from the second workshop proved fruitful
for the third and this idea was incorporated into the proposed research
Workshop Four-Planetary Defense
Partly as a result of the growing salience of planetary defense and the
findings of the first three workshops, the American Institute of
Aeronautics and Astronautics, in conjunction with The Aerospace
Corporation is organizing a planetary Defense Conference to be held in
February of 2004. A session on Disaster Preparedness is being co-chaired
by a psychologist as part of the team of session chairs that are
defining the nature of the conference. Psychologists and other social
scientists will present papers in this session.
The human and behavioral problems related to a potential meteor strike
begin long before a meteor hits. In one sense they begin as soon as a
NEO is identified as a probable threat. This is the time when physical
scientists and engineers must begin working on the final stages of
mitigation. But in another sense the problems begin long before that
even because plans must be laid down well in advance to facilitate the
massive cooperative activity required for mitigation if it is going to
take place in a timely manner.
The reason that it makes sense for psychologists to be involved in a
conference sponsored by the AIAA and attended by physicists, engineers
and astronomers is two-fold. First, psychologists too are scientists.
Our basic training is in scientific method and applied mathematics. As
such we, are able to communicate with other scientists in a way that is
different from those without science training. Psychologists who
emphasize neuroscience are very close to those in physiology chemistry
and medicine. Psychologists who emphasize human factors and ergonomics
are conversant with technology, engineering physics and chemistry.
Second, by using scientific methods we have accumulated a large
inventory of theory and data related to human behavior with which we are
Thus psychologists fill a gap, in a sense, between scientists interested
in social issues and the people who are leaders in business and
government, historians, artists, and the clergy. Psychologists, by
virtue of their training and communicative skills and the fund of
socially relevant information they have at their disposal are poised to
play a collaborative role with physical scientists and engineers in
establishing the policies that make that last ditch effort possible. So
even before an NEO threat is imminent psychology has roles to play in
leadership, management and the other aspects of applied social
psychology, even on the macro level of international relations.
The role of psychology in the last three of the above-described
workshops is one of the ways of playing a role in protecting the Earth
from NEOs. However, protection is not only from the physical effects of
an impact, but also from the social, economic, political, and emotional
effects preceding and following such an impact or even the imminent
threat of one.
Psychologists from different branches of the discipline have been
contributing to the fund of knowledge about the management of disasters
for some time. Environmental psychology textbooks contain chapters on
dealing with natural and technological disasters. Military and clinical
psychologists have studied the aftermath of warfare. The American
Psychological Association recently published a book titled, In the Wake
of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror. The authors bring together the
efforts of two decades of research that gives us a way of organizing
information about how individuals and groups respond to terror. This
type of theory construction is very important for directing effective
new lines or research. The newly developed organization, The Society
for Human Performance in Extreme Environments began for the purpose of
studying spacecraft and undersea environments but is now moving in the
direction broadening its scope to include coping in stressful
environments produced by various emergencies (King, 2003).
What is different about the events described in this paper is first, a
shift in emphasis from local- and regional-level disasters to
global-level disasters, demanding unheard of levels of
international-cross cultural cooperation. Secondly, this paper described
the joining of physical scientists, engineers, psychologists and other
social scientists in a comprehensive collaboration among science
oriented professionals to assure the continuation of high quality life
for all humankind in the event that the Earth is imminently threatened
or struck by a large NEO. It will happen. When? We don't know. But when
it does, we had better be ready.
King, J. (May-June, 2003). The Explorer, 3,1, (pp.1-2).
Launius, R., NPR website, Weekend Edition, Sunday, July 20, 2003,
NEAR-Shoemaker, NASA website,
Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., & Greenberg, J. (2002). In the wake of
9/11: The psychology of terror. Washington, D. C., American
Shoemaker-Levy, NASA website,
Ward, P. D. & Brownlee, D. (2002). The life and death of planet Earth.
New York, Henry Holt.
Wichman, H. (2002) The psychological and socio-cultural Aspects of
disasters caused by asteroids and comets striking the Earth. Paper
presented at the 53rd International Astronautical Congress and World
Space Congress, Houston, Texas, October.
Author contact: email@example.com
Bio Sketch: Harvey Wichman
Harvey Wichman received his B. A. and M. A. degrees from California
State University, Long Beach and his Ph.D. in experimental psychology
from Claremont Graduate University. He was a member of the founding
faculties of both Delta College in Michigan and California State
University in San Bernardino. He is Professor Emeritus at Claremont McKenna College
(CMC) and Claremont Graduate University. He is currently Director of CMC's
Aerospace Psychology Laboratory.
Trained in both neuroscience and social psychology, he conducts research
on the effects of working and living in severe environments. As a Fellow of the
American Council on Education he spent a year at the National Institutes of
Health. As a Sloan Foundation Fellow he worked for a year on the design of the
International Space Station with Rockwell International. He is the author of the book Human Factors
in the Design of Spacecraft, and has published articles in journals such as the
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Space Life Sciences, Human Factors,
and Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine.
In addition to work with NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory,
Professor Wichman's space research has involved designing passenger compartments for
civilian space flight on re-useable McDonnell Douglas Aerospace (now Boeing Aerospace)
rockets for both orbital and sub-orbital flights. Most recently the same design
activities are being conducted for the new two-stage Universal Space Lines rocket
called the Space Clipper. The CMC Aerospace Psychology Laboratory has conducted
research in simulated space flights and is currently developing a space flight
simulator for the space museum at Alamagordo, New Mexico.
In the field of aviation, Professor Wichman studies passenger misbehavior aboard
airliners (he holds commercial pilot multi-engine, flight instructor and instrument
flight instructor ratings). In social psychology he studies the variables associated
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