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A challenge for astronauts: When the worst news comes in space

Astronaut Daniel Tani was orbiting 200 miles above Earth when he learned his mother had died in a car accident. So he sent a video message for the funeral.

Astronaut Vladimir Dezhurov was on board the Russian space station Mir when he learned of his mother's death. He was despondent for days.

And last weekend, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly was commanding the International Space Station when he learned someone in Arizona had shot his sister-in-law, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

"We have a unique vantage point here aboard the International Space Station," Kelly said last week, and he used that vantage point to make one of the bluntest statements yet about the tragedy:

"As I look out the window, I see a very beautiful planet that seems very inviting and peaceful. Unfortunately, it is not."

Orbiting astronauts are always mesmerized by the view: the giant, living, spinning Earth. But that sphere also is the place where humans shoot each other needlessly, where lives end both gently and violently.

This is a little-discussed challenge of space travel that will become increasingly important if NASA moves ahead with plans to send astronauts on longer-than-ever journeys, such as a trip to an asteroid or Mars.

On these long space missions, astronauts may hear the news that makes people feel most alone — such as losing a parent — at the very time they are most alone.

NASA has already at times found itself in a predicament: Do you tell astronauts of the disasters down below, or keep quiet?

Tell them, says George Abbey, former director of NASA's Johnson Space Center, which is home to Mission Control.

"The feeling is, they need to be straightforward and honest with crews on orbit. They need to recognize that these individuals are professional and situations do develop," said Abbey, now a space policy expert at the Baker Institute at Rice University.

But there have been times when the information didn't flow so freely. This account in the book The Right Stuff suggests John Glenn wasn't fully informed that Mission Control believed his Mercury spacecraft heat shield might have come loose:

“But if he was going to re-enter with the retropack on, then they wanted the straps in place for some reason. And there was only one possible reason — something was wrong with the heat shield. And this they would not tell him! Him! — the pilot! It was quite unbelievable!"

The book continues: "If the heat shield came off, then he would fry. If they didn't want him — the pilot! — to know all this, then it meant they were afraid he might panic. And if he didn't even need to know the whole pattern — just the pieces, so he could follow orders — then he wasn't really a pilot!"

In the case of the Arizona shootings, it's clear Kelly was well-informed. He even sent a Twitter message about it on the day it happened.

Even if NASA wanted to, it wouldn't be easy to put a lid on bad news, because the information explosion has now extended into space. These days, astronauts communicate with their families by e-mail and even phone calls.

Still, former NASA astronaut Norman Thagard has seen with his own eyes what bad news can do to a person in space.

Thagard was on board the Russian space station Mir in 1995 when the Russian commander, Dezhurov, learned his mother had unexpectedly died.

"It really did get to him. He basically just went to himself for about two to three days. … Our flight engineer urged him to eat and urged him to start being active again," said Thagard, a retired associate dean of the FAMU-Florida State University College of Engineering.

Thagard said in an interview that he did not attempt to console Dezhurov. Not being Russian, he feared that doing so might violate some cultural norm he wasn't even aware of.

Thagard said it's probably best for astronauts to let NASA managers know in advance whether they would like to get any bad news immediately while in space, or later on the ground.

The business of human space flight is poised for three big trends. One is the coming era of commercial space flights. Another is the new countries getting into space travel, especially China, which may be planning to send astronauts to the moon.

The third is that the United States in recent years has been planning to send humans farther into space than ever before. So the question of how to deal with bad news will become even more important.

The Bush administration planned to send astronauts back to the moon and eventually on to Mars. The Obama administration has replaced that plan with a more amorphous one, but still promises to send humans on unprecedented journeys. One is a potential trip to an asteroid, a journey that could last six months. Compare that with the first Apollo moon trip, which lasted eight days.

Sending astronauts to Mars and back could take three years.

In that length of time, it's almost inevitable that astronauts will have to deal with some bad news. It's something you can't completely train for, said Pat Duggins, a radio journalist and author of the book Trailblazing Mars: NASA's Next Giant Leap. Since losing a parent only happens once or twice in a lifetime, "They're really not going to know what's going to happen until this individual really goes through it."

Duggins says a radio transmission to Mars takes 10 minutes. So imagine: You are one of three humans in a spaceship on the red planet.

Mission Control informs you: Your sister-in-law has just been shot in an unprovoked attack.

You ask: Is she still alive?

And then wait 20 minutes for an answer.

Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8232.

A challenge for astronauts: When the worst news comes in space 01/15/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 15, 2011 3:30am]

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