How to Get Along in Space

NASA has started a new training program to help space station residents fight off cabin fever.

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NASA assigned Nick Kanas to study the psychosocial experiences of the shuttle-Mir crews. The psychiatrist had each U.S. astronaut fill out a weekly questionnaire rating his or her emotional state, as well as the state of the group as a whole. Kanas and his coworkers are now analyzing the results and starting to quantify the cohesiveness and tensions of the groups.

At the crews’ request, Kanas disguised the data just enough to protect identities and keep responses from being associated with specific events. Three major preliminary findings have emerged so far. First, in comparing the first and second halves of a mission, Kanas saw that while the crew’s mental and emotional functioning did deteriorate to some extent, mission duration itself did not seem to significantly affect interpersonal relations. Now, says the researcher, “We’re analyzing stressful events that occurred during the missions to see if they’re a more powerful predictor of changes in crew tension, cohesion, and leadership than just simply being together for a long period of time.”

A second finding involves a phenomenon termed displacement. Just as a couple might blame relatives for problems within their own marriage, space crews who get into emotional tussles with each other might displace their anger toward controllers on the ground. “We found on our measures in both the crew members and people on the ground in mission control that they [the astronauts] tended to displace negative feelings during the particularly stressful times that they had,” says Kanas. “Crew-ground communication is very important and if crew members and ground personnel are not understanding each other’s feelings…it can lead to distortions in communication and difficulty when, in fact, [the problem] may not even be related to the two [groups] at all.”

The third major finding of the shuttle-Mir study was that U.S. and Russian subjects differed from each other in their responses, both in space and on the ground. “In general, Americans seemed to be a little more dysphoric in their work environment,” says Kanas. The researchers concluded that the feelings of discontent resulted from the way the crews were combined. “There was one American and two Russians on all of these missions,” Kanas says, “and the American was always in the minority, and basically the Americans were flying on a Russian vessel with a Russian commander where the predominant language was Russian, where all the jokes and things were in Russian. And I think the U.S. crew members felt basically socially isolated in that kind of environment.”

In addition, he says, “The Americans, both on the ground and in space, felt that they were under more work pressure, significantly more, than the Russians did.” That finding could be merely an artifact of language—the Russian wording for “work pressure” may imply something different from what “work pressure” suggests to an American. Or the finding might mean that the Americans really did feel more pressure.

The studies have some flaws. The researchers expected the crews to be passing the time on Mir primarily in boredom and didn’t expect them to be subjected to the stresses they experienced, such as the fire that broke out on Mir. “For some of the events that were especially stressful, the crews were so busy—I hate to use the pun of ‘putting out a fire’—but were so busy taking care of…whatever happened that they did not fill out the questionnaires,” Kanas says. When such busy times occurred, the astronauts would fill out the questionnaire after the incidents, yielding results that weren’t as accurate.

Still, even with flaws, Kanas believes his team’s study is the first to make significant observations about the psychosocial dimensions of long-term spaceflight.

In the wake of the Mir missions, says chief astronaut Charlie Precourt, “we recognized we were not as prepared as we ought to have been, either from a management standpoint or a crew training standpoint. We saw shortfalls involving crew members’ understanding of the personal interactions, which could happen to anybody, even brothers and sisters….

“We started to look at other [training] models that are out there, like expeditions to Antarctica and the outdoor leadership schools, that would…arm people with the right tools to persevere through the hard times.”

The architects of the training regime that NASA is instituting include Precourt and Shannon Lucid, the second astronaut to live aboard Mir. Says Lucid: “Everybody that came back from Mir said what I said: It doesn’t make any difference if you have the most high-tech, latest, state-of-the-art equipment. If you don’t have a crew that gets along, you’ll have a miserable experience.”

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