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James Oberg: Violence and Sexual Assault in "Space"

A Canadian woman who encountered violence and sexual assault during a 110-day mock space mission in Moscow believes that the Russian space program has a long way to go before it can reliably take part in international space missions.

In an escalating war of words, the Ottawa Citizen, in its Sunday (April 2) edition, carried comments from Russian space psychologists alleging Dr. Judith Lapierre exhibited hysteria and depression during the experiment. The Russians suggested that she had unintentionally provoked the Russian misbehavior.

Under pressure from the Canadian Space Agency, the Russians backed off on their charges. But Mark Belokovsky, an official spokesman for the Institute of Biological and Medical Problems, which sponsored the tests, told a UPI reporter on April 4 by telephone that Lapierre "must be pursuing her own aims in this story."

Last January, after twice being forcibly French-kissed by the team commander soon after witnessing a ten minute fight between two Russians that left blood spattered on the walls, Lapierre and associates from Japan and Austria appealed to their sponsoring agencies to discipline the offenders.

To their astonishment, they were told that such behavior was normal for Russians, and they should put up with it or leave. They were also told that Russian culture obliged them not to complain publicly.

Ten days after the assault, Lapierre and her teammates were given locks for the tunnel between their module and the Russian module.

The Japanese participant was so upset by the lack of prompt and energetic outside backing that he quit the experiment altogether. Lapierre stayed, but relayed information to her husband and father in Quebec. They later ignited a media campaign in Canada about the Russian misbehavior.

"The problem was not so much the incident itself, but their reaction to our concerns," Lapierre told me in a telephone interview from her hotel in Moscow late in March. "If people are to work together they have to share some basic principles and rules."

Lapierre told me that although some press accounts were distorted and exaggerated, she was grateful for the media coverage. "If it had not been for the press, it would have been minimized, and nothing would have been done," she said.

"This was a chaotic field study--not a scientific experiment," Lapierre told me. "They were not ready to host an international study."

Her team had exited the modules on March 22. She returned to Canada April 6.

Lapierre, 32, was one of three international test subjects who entered a test chamber in Moscow on December 3. They and a Russian colleague joined four Russians who had been inside the three-room complex since early summer.

The experiment, called Sphinx-99, was designed to observe group dynamics under both routine and emergency conditions. The name is an abbreviation for Simulation of Flight of International Crew on Space Station.

The sponsoring institute is Russia's leading space-flight medicine center. The small modules to simulate long space missions had originally been built in the 1960s.

The four Russians were in one room, called "Mir," which contained long banks of consoles and research equipment, plus four cots. The international team was in another module, called "Mars," that in addition to test equipment contained small sleeping cubicles. A third module contained toilets and a shower. The modules were connected by tubular tunnels that had to be crawled through.

Television cameras set up inside the two main modules allowed a control team to constantly monitor the test subjects.

Lapierre holds an MS in nursing and a Ph.D. in Health Sciences. She had studied at the International Space University at Strasbourg and had performed psychological research in Antarctica. When the Russian medical experiment was recruiting international test subjects, she signed up.

Although not formally an employee of the Canadian Space Agency, she applied for and received a grant from it to document her experiences. She also hoped that the work would enhance her chances of actually being selected as a Canadian astronaut for the International Space Station program. But she has told reporters that the recent controversy with the Russians has probably ruined any such chances.

Lapierre described her research in the Russian modules to a Canadian television program two weeks ago. "I was doing a study on human interactions and adaptations to life in confinement," she said. Its purpose was "for selection of astronauts in the future, looking at what factors are essential."

From a preliminary evaluation of her data, she announced one conclusion. "Sharing some basic values and principles is the major issue if you are to work in an international space station," she said. "There should be strict rules and codes of conduct, because simple rules of society should apply in any confinement or space experiment."

In an e-mail sent to their sponsoring agencies early in January, the foreign members of the crew complained about the lack of official response to the Russians' misbehavior. "We had never expected such events to take place in a highly controlled scientific experiment where individuals go through a multistep selection process," they wrote in a letter published by The Globe and Mail in Toronto. "If we had known . . . we would not have joined it as subjects."

Lapierre, who is just five feet tall, insists the controversial tongue kisses were not friendly celebrations, and that she vigorously told the Russian to back off.

She told me that the commander explained his intentions to her. "We should try kissing--I haven't been smoking for six months," announced the still-unnamed Russian. "Then we can kiss after the mission and compare it. Let's do the experiment now."

She dismisses the notion that the Russian thought his actions were normal and acceptable. "Why did he try to pull me out of sight of the camera?" she asked.

Shortly before the kissing incident, she had witnessed a bloody fistfight between two other Russians. She took photographs of the blood-spattered wall with her digital camera and e-mailed them home to Canada.

In December, when Lapierre's team entered the modules, Valery Gushchin, the scientific coordinator of the project, had clearly exhibited cultural attitudes about women in Russia which in hindsight may have contributed to the problem.

"Men, they have some expectations from women," he told a Canadian television team. "They want them to be more like women, not just partners. At least Russians [do]."

Following the incident, Gushchin blamed Lapierre. She told me that his report stated that she had "ruined the mission, the atmosphere, by refusing to be kissed." She should have been taken out, he wrote, and he insisted that the foreigners had also caused the fight.

Following the first press attention to Dr. Lapierre's complaints, Gushchin told reporters it was a cultural misunderstanding.

"In our culture there is no difference between kissing on the cheeks and kissing on the lips, "he explained. "Especially if it's connected to celebrating a holiday or a party, then this is nothing."

"This perhaps shows that there must be special training for men so they can understand the various taboos of women from other cultures," Gushchin admitted. "Our men probably have to learn to be more prudent and understanding."

The Russians also called the men's clashes "friendly fights." But the non-Russian crew members were so alarmed they hid all the knives in the modules in case the fight resumed.

Gushchin criticized Lapierre for cultural insensitivity in making her complaint public. "In our culture, it is taboo to wash your dirty clothes in public."

In an interview with a UPI reporter on April 4, IBMP spokesman Belokovsky echoed these accusations. "She signed a confidentiality agreement," he said. "She broke all agreements by making statements and allegations."

"She is a tired woman," Belokovsky continued. He found it suspicious that "she has waited all this time to make allegations."

On March 31, Russian medical cosmonaut Valery Polyakov told Russia's Interfax press agency that Lapierre herself had violated a signed contract not to disclose "individual medical and psychological aspects of the study." According to Interfax, he "regretted the fact that through Lapierre information about the psychological condition of the volunteers was misreported by some of the Western media."

Lapierre told Canadian reporters that a preliminary summary of the mission whitewashed the incidents, and she was required to sign it before the modules were opened.

Russia's Interfax news agency March 29 presented an account of the incidents which significantly varied from that of the foreign test subjects. It stated that Lapierre simply "considered a Russian male colleague's attempt to kiss her on New Year's Eve as sexual harassment."

Interfax then quoted Gushchin as explaining the problems as occurring "while the crews were adjusting to isolation." According to Gushchin, "They displayed excessive irritability, briefly lost self control, were overly emotional, and too categorical in assessments," he said.

The Russians who misbehaved, however, had been in the modules for six months. Gushchin, it seems to Lapierre, was blaming the Russian behavior on the newly-arrived foreigners.

Lapierre told me that the Russian accusations about her state of mind were improper. "Psychologists are not allowed to make [such diagnoses]," she said, and she had not even met with any Russian psychiatrists. Even if she had, she added, any medical records would be private.

Lapierre also complained to me about other Moscow press coverage of her complaints. "They are only protecting the Russians, not trying to understand our feelings," she said.

Meanwhile, the Russian crew is feeling sad, perplexed, and confused at the fuss over what they consider a "small thing," said Dr. Raye Kass, a professor of Applied Human Science at Concordia University, Montreal, Canada, who is a principal investigator in the project.

NASA had been invited to participate in the experiment, but after reviewing the proposed protocols, had declined, a source told UPI. So had research teams in France and Ukraine.

The international test subjects knew the Sphinx-99 isolation experiment would be tough, Lapierre continued, but they encountered unexpected hardships even in the simplest areas.

"We were promised hot water, but for two and a half months we had to shower in cold water," she said. "We had to eat kasha [wheat gruel] every night; there was no variety or international flavor to the food."

She sent home digital photographs of what she called "the cockroach invasion," and of the subsequent "head lice invasion."

More critical to the tensions which arose, there were communications problems. "We were promised English as the official language of the mission, but 'Mission Control' didn't speak any English," she said. She was allowed e-mail and brief weekly phone calls with her family.

Lapierre expressed disappointment at how isolated she was left by the Russian program scientists.

"I expected to be in better hands," she told the Discovery-Canada science program, referring to the Russian reputation for psychological support for space crews. "But I'm doubting today what kinds of psychological support they are giving to cosmonauts, if they are giving any, because I didn't get any from them."

Lapierre stressed to me that she was criticizing the program management, not Russian cultural features. "It wasn't a Russian culture thing," she explained, "it was a personality trait and crew selection failure."

When the Japanese researcher walked out in January, nobody replaced him. The following month, the long-term Russian crew left, except for a life-support systems engineer. "He came over and stayed with us," Lapierre said. "We got along fine."

James Oberg is a twenty-two-year veteran of Mission Control in Houston, and a lifelong sleuth of Soviet space secrets. He is now a full-time writer and consultant. His home page is www.jamesoberg.com.

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