This Week in Research: Astronauts vs. Robots; Romanian Orphanages Damage Kids’ Brains

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The club of people who’ve been in space is a small and elite one. Don Thomas, currently based at Towson University, is one of the lucky few:  he flew on four missions in three years, a NASA record. This week, he spoke with Wired about space tourism, when people will finally walk on Mars, and the educational value of astronauts.

The problem with the space program these days is one of money. As Thomas notes, when the economy suffers, people (especially politicians) become wary of spending billions on shuttle programs. Talk shifts to cheaper, unmanned missions. But, Thomas says, as sophisticated as robotics can be, they can’t capture human perspective. “If you compare color pictures taken of the Moon’s surface from the unmanned Surveyor spacecraft that landed on the moon in 1967-68 to pictures of the surface of the moon that include the image of an astronaut like Buzz Aldrin on Apollo 11, the difference is incredibly striking,” Thomas says. And part of that difference is the human emotion:  “Robots can send back pictures but cannot convey the excitement in their voice and the awe of being there.”  Even more so, though, humans have an on-the-ground (or on-the-moon) ability to solve problems on the fly, fix broken equipment, and deal with the unexpected.

As for commercial space tourism, Thomas’s theory is that it won’t happen until launch costs are significantly reduced — or perhaps when it becomes economically advantageous to make certain kinds of products in space. (Think about that one for a second.)

But Thomas’s most exciting theory is that humans will land on Mars within the next three to four decades. “It may be the United States doing this or it may be China, India, or some other emerging world power with an economy to support such an incredible adventure.”  Of course, that depends on a host of economic and political factors — but, nonetheless, we can dream.


There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that children who spend formative years in warehouse-style Romanian orphanages are at a higher risk of developing mental and emotional problems later in life — an impression that’s just been affirmed by University of Maryland research, who found that this kind of institutionalization can actually lead to brain damage.

Education professor Nathan Fox is one of a team of researchers who’ve been following children in Romanian orphanages for over a decade. Part of their research involved selecting a random group of children who were then moved from orphanages to foster homes. The researchers spent the subsequent years studying the children’s cognitive development of the two groups. Using MRIs and EEGs, Fox and his team found that the brain has a “sensitive period” for social development. This has an impact on everything from IQ scores, language use, executive function, mental health, and social-emotional well-being.

(Under dictator Nicola Ceausescu, Romania created maternity hospitals and orphanages to deal with the problem of infant abandonment. These orphanages were often over-crowded, harsh, and isolating; the country is in the process of transitioning its child welfare system.)

The good news is that moving the children to a family environment does indeed have an impact, even though the effects of institutionalization are long-lasting. According to Fox, there is indeed potential for developmental “catch up.”

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