ALBUQUERQUE (CN) — At the very least, astronauts will need a sense of humor to handle living up to three years in an RV-sized spacecraft on journey to Mars.
“Teamwork and Collaboration in Long-Duration Space Missions: Going to Extremes,” by Lauren Blackwell Landon, Kelley J. Slack, and Jamie D. Barrett, explores the psychological needs of a small team of people who will share a space no bigger than midsize RV for up to three years en route to Mars.
Their paper was published in American Psychologist, the flagship journal of the American Psychological Association.
Using insights gained from astronauts who have spent time on the International Space Station, and from military veterans living at an Antarctic research station during the isolated winters, the paper examines the psychological makeup of a likely team, and the challenges they will face, along with the ground teams that support them.
Astronauts who are emotionally stable, agreeable, open to new experiences, conscientious, resilient, adaptable and not too introverted or extroverted are more likely to work well with others. A sense of humor will help to defuse tense situations, according to the paper.
But even positive qualities such as humor could create challenges during a multiyear Mars flight. For example, an isolated team is likely to develop in-jokes and a culture of their own, which could create a divide between the flight crew and Mission Control.
And while leadership skills might seem essential for astronauts, the paper adds: “Many astronaut candidates enter the corps with experience and skills in leadership; however, the leadership role is shared during a long-duration mission, even if a formal mission commander has been assigned. Thus, new astronauts with typical leadership skills at selection may need training on aspects of followership and shared leadership in concert with team orientation.”
With a round-trip communications delay of up to 45 minutes, the authors say a Mars flight crew must be far more autonomous than those on the International Space Station. Also crucial will be to formalize communications protocols to minimize oversights and omissions.
The authors suggest using unobtrusive means to gather information about the crew’s mental and emotional states. Devices such as sociometric badges, to monitor astronauts’ proximity to one another and their facing and posture during social interactions could give ground support important information on how the flight team is interacting.
Video and facial analysis will give a great deal of information, and lexical analysis — such as counting the frequency of certain words in spoken and written communication — could help monitor the psychological states of the astronauts.
Blood tests to measure levels of the stress hormone cortisol and of oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone” could provide indicators of how the flight team is handling the stresses of the long flight.
In the end, according to lead author Landon, “Successfully negotiating conflict, planning together as a team, making decisions as a team and practicing shared leadership should receive extensive attention long before a team launches on a space mission.”