SHANNON LUCID, your ride's here.
And it's about time. Six months locked in a floating house
trailer looking at the same unshaven cosmonaut mugs would be enough
to drive lesser women, or men for that matter, more than a little
After all, how many times can you play "I spy some space junk"
or float off the same old titanium-alloy walls?
For the claustrophobic, the experience of the 53-year-old
biochemist astronaut with the illuminating name would be enough to
set their guts wobbling like a whacked-out gyroscope.
Weather and mechanical problems kept Lucid marooned on the
Russian space station Mir long after her planned four-month tour.
As the Space Shuttle sped late Wednesday to fetch her, many down on
terra firma wondered how she could have kept her wits and wit about
her in exceedingly close quarters from which, practically speaking,
there was no exit.
"For someone with claustrophobia, that would be a fate worse
than death," said Jerilyn Ross, president of the Anxiety Disorders
Association of America.
Psychologists break phobias into a handful of categories -
their causes are thought to be an amalgam of genetics, trauma and
childhood experiences - but at their heart, many are variations of
claustrophobia, the panicky fear of being trapped in some place or
situation from which there is no escape.
At a minimum, the experience of Lucid highlights the two
Those who see a space trip as an exhilarating adventure, an
adrenalin-pumping exploit to the final frontier.
Those for whom merely reading about Lucid's delay sends them
scurrying for the nearest Maalox, or, perhaps, wastebasket.
Lucid falls in the former category. With the screening
capacities available to psychologists - everything from written
tests to virtua l-reality programs that can vividly simulate the
cramped conditions of space - it's a safe bet that those who lack a
strong sense of internal control would never make it past the Cape
Canaveral observation deck.
But how can some comfortably orbit in a spacecraft or, for that
matter, dive in a submarine or labor in a coal mine, all situations
that in many others would trigger a panic that would make Black
Tuesday resemble a tea party?
"Some people actually thrive on testing themselves to the nth
degree," Ross explained. "It's almost counterphobic."
Phobia, by definition, means something that is irrational.
Psychologists agree that phobias can be funky. It is possible that
a person who is not afraid of crowded elevators or small rooms
might still get weird facing a prolonged period in a tiny space
surrounded by nothing.
Phobias can be spawned by traumas both fleeting and grave - a
subway train briefly stuck in a tunnel, a childhood punishment of
being locked in a darkened room.
After a DC-10 crashed in 1989 in Sioux City, Iowa, and wound up
in a cornfield, psychiatrists found that many survivors came away
with a disgust for corn. …