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USC professor named to ethics committee for space exploration

Flight deck of Space Shuttle Endeavour (Photo/Steve Jurvetson)

Lawrence Palinkas, the Albert G. and Frances Lomas Feldman Professor of Social Policy and Health and director of the Behavioral Health Research Cluster at the USC School of Social Work, has been appointed to the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Ethics, Principles and Guidelines for Health Standards for Long Duration and Exploration Spaceflights.

The committee will conduct a study to examine policy and ethical issues relevant to space crew health standards for long missions and flights beyond low Earth orbit or those that travel to an altitude higher than 2,000 kilometers (about 1,240 miles). NASA would like the committee to develop a framework that can help guide decision-making when implementing health standards for these kinds of space missions. The standards would address potential hazardous exposures and working conditions that are uncertain, unknown or that go beyond NASA’s current risk limits.

Lawrence Palinkas (USC Photo/Brian Goodman)

Lawrence Palinkas (USC Photo/Brian Goodman)

Palinkas is currently using a NASA grant to examine the effects of communication delays between astronauts and mission control on the performance and behavioral health of crew members in space. Though delays are rare during current missions, Palinkas said the issue will become increasingly critical as astronauts begin making longer trips into the galaxy.

“When we get to Mars, the delay is going to be 20 minutes one way,” he said. “So imagine calling your husband or wife from Mars and saying, ‘Hi, honey, how are the kids?’ and waiting 40 minutes before you get an answer.”

To date, only a handful of studies have observed how individuals and teams in remote environments respond to delays in communication. Palinkas served as a consultant on one recent project that examined communication lag between ground staff and a group of astronauts in an underwater habitat off the coast of Florida. He also previously studied the psychological effects of long stays in polar regions.

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