Thursday, September 22, 2011

Shades of Skylab: the re-entry of the UARS satellite, and the psychological effects of orbital debris

This Friday, debris from NASA's Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) is predicted to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere. Twenty six components are expected to survive, with a 1-in-3200 chance of hitting someone or something. Where it will re-enter is not precisely known. 

Artist's impression of UARS. Image courtesy of NASA

When Skylab was about to re-enter, there was a great deal of speculation and fear across the world. In the early days, NASA did not give much thought to managing public expectations, only establishing an information centre towards the end. Some thought that it was best not to give the public the impression that NASA was in control (only partially true) as it would reduce the blame if anything went wrong! People thought the world might blow up, or that the spacecraft would descend upon them in vengeance for their misdemeanours (see also my previous post here). Psychologist Talma Kushnir investigated how people in Israel perceived the risk.  This is how she summed up the situation:
The anticipation of the fall of Skylab was a worldwide event. Several features of that situation might have caused confusion and emotional arousal in at least part of the population. For example, catastrophes usually occur without prior notice, but in this case the whole world was alerted for weeks beforehand. While the fall was inevitable, its exact timing, location and consequences were unpredictable. For many people it represented a risk of unknown magnitude. The public was constantly bombarded by the mass media with bulletins of confusing information. Moreover, the information provided at the time was mainly probabilistic and varied from moment to moment, within and between available sources. On the whole, many individuals might have perceived the situation as stressful. (Kushnir 1982:85)
Among her conclusions were that 
1. The media played a role in exaggerating the risks; and presented statistics about the risk that were not very accessible;
2. Stress was higher among women, youth and uneducated people - the less education the person had, the more unrealistic their expectations;
3. Fear of science and technology may have contributed to higher levels of stress.

The gendered dimension is interesting here. Kushnir noted that:
in almost any sample, females are more likely to have less years of formal education and less knowledge of scientific and technological matters. These reasons may contribute to their stronger feelings of helplessness. (Kushnir 1982: 92) 
Moreover, they may also be more likely to express their anxiety than men (Kushnir 1981:112), thus skewing the results.

What was the ultimate result of Skylab's fall on public attitudes?  Back in the 1980s, Kushnir felt that Glass's gloomy prediction of 1970 had only been reinforced by Skylab. Glass argued that there would be:
more and more massive resistance to technological change. I predict in equal measure a growing hostility to science .... Hence the fifth .... limiting factor in the growth of science - the psychological resistance of and the restricted support by a population inadequately educated in the understanding of science and militantly opposed to it because of its identification with the technological annihilation of the human environment. (Glass 1970:75)
Sure, it's very Cold War, but one could argue that at least part of this prediction has been played out in subsequent decades. How will re-entries like the UARS, which are highly publicised across forms of media that didn't exist back in the 1980s, in an environment where the public are increasingly aware of the problems created by orbital debris, affect attitudes towards space industry, exploration and science?

You can watch the UARS tumbling in its decaying orbit in the video below, shot by Thierry Legault with a 14 inch telescope in France on September 15th.

Glass, B.  1970  The timely and the timelessness. New York: Basic Books 
Gorman, A.C. 2011 The sky is falling: how Skylab became an Australian icon.  Journal of Australian Studies 35(4): 529-546
Kushnir, Talma 1981 Anticipating Skylab: subjective probability of injury in relation to birth order, anxiety and affiliation.  European Journal of Social Psychology 11:109-113
Kushnir, Talma 1982  Skylab effects:  psychological reactions to a human-made environmental hazard. Environment and Behaviour 14:84-93

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