Social Work in Space

Professor awarded sabbatical to study at NASA

By: Becky St. Clair

One of Martin's favorite experiences during her research was sitting in this astronaut training device.

During winter quarter of 2007, Lana Martin, professor of social work, was awarded a sabbatical to study something she has always been fascinated with: the United States space program. 

Martin’s dream was to do a research project for NASA on the impact of space flight upon families of astronauts.  Unfortunately, Martin was not given the opportunity to select the topic for her research, but she was invited to do research through NASA’s history division.

Her assignment was to study the impact of the American civil rights movement of the 1960s on NASA’s technical workforce.  NASA wanted to know how the movement had impacted their program then, and where they were in comparison today.

Stops along her journey included Kennedy Space Center, the Houston Space Center, the Washington, D.C., Archives, and Marshall Space Center. 

While visiting Kennedy Space Center, Martin had the opportunity to stay in the home of one of the original engineers for the Apollo project.  What Martin learned during her week of stay and interviews was enough to change her fascination with astronauts to the engineers who make space flight possible.

 “I went into the project starry-eyed about the astronauts,” says Martin with a smile.  “I came away with my admiration shifted to the engineers.”

Though she had difficulty being granted interviews with equal opportunity officers, astronauts, and other engineers, Martin was given full reign of the NASA archives employees. 

“They were amazing!” exclaims Martin.  “They were helpful with anything I needed for the study, and I am now organizing the large volume of data they helped me collect for my paper.”

One of the key parts of Martin’s research was meeting with two African American men who were appointed as NASA’s Equal Opportunity Officers in the 1960s to ensure NASA was implementing the Federal Civil Rights Act.

“Both interviews were enlightening and sobering,” says Martin.  “It was not easy for these men to stand before a room of primarily white men who had little interest in the Civil Rights Act.  Especially since they had just been commissioned by President Kennedy to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade.”

Martin’s study will contain more specific details of the challenges that faced those men as they did their best to fulfill their daunting task.

Her sabbatical wasn’t all research and writing.  Martin was also given the opportunity to tour behind the scenes at Houston Space Center.  Her most proud moment was sitting in the cockpit of a simulated spaceship control unit used by astronauts for training.  She also participated in the “Train as an Astronaut” program at Kennedy Space Center.

“It was a lot of fun training for moon walking and experiencing weightlessness!” says Martin.

Included in the program was lunch with a retired astronaut, which allowed Martin some time for a brief interview.  

Martin wasn’t alone in her research at NASA.  Ann Szalda-Petree, a social work professor based at WWU’s Missoula campus, was the co-author of this study.  Szalda-Petree’s studies of evolutionary psychology and its application to NASA’s technical workforce will be a significant contribution to the study. 

Both Martin and Szalda-Petree believe it will be beneficial for NASA to better understand why people tend to congregate to be with people who are most like themselves, and to celebrate ethnic diversity as a strength that emerged from the challenges of the civil rights era.

Martin hopes that the results of her study will be valuable enough to NASA for her to be invited to do a research project on family studies as originally desired.  If she could dream even bigger, Martin would hope that her research would help establish an interest in a large need she sees within NASA: A need for social workers in the space program.  She hopes to write the first textbook for Social Work in Space.

Martin’s research will be dedicated to Michael Anderson, an African American astronaut killed in the Columbia explosion.  Anderson’s niece was attending WWU as part of the Social Work program when the incident took place.

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