Astronauts cooped up on board cramped spaceships to Mars will suffer a deterioration in their thinking and problem solving skills, a new study found.
In mock flights crews were only able to successfully complete tasks between 20 and 60 per cent of the time.
They were subjected to the same conditions astronauts on a real mission would face – isolation, lack of sleep because of noise and vibrations and having to carry out tasks where there is a lag in communication between the ship and mission control.
The findings highlights the challenges crews will face on long missions lasting up to three years.
The aim is to create a predictive model to allow NASA to avoid conflicts and communication breakdowns among crew and help them select the most compatible teams that can get along on long voyages.
This should let Houston head off problems that could make or break the Mission to Mars.
NASA recently announced a crewed mission to the Red Planet – a 250 million miles round trip.
A worldwide teams of researchers are toiling over the journey’s inherent physiological, engineering and social obstacles.
But researchers at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, are exploring the behaviour of crews and how this will affect teamwork.
They are looking at the chemistry between crew and its support teams back on Earth, their coping mechanisms and crew-compatibility.
They will also look at work tasks so astronauts can better manage transitions from solo to team tasks.
The study also aims to identify and build “shared mental models, whereby a team of varied specialists can find enough common ground to effectively accomplish their tasks but not so much that they engage in ‘group think’ or form alliances.”
Professor of behavioral science Noshir Contractor said: “It’s like astronaut Scott Kelly says, ‘Teamwork makes the dream work.”
Professor of communication and psychology Leslie DeChurch said: “Creative thinking and problem solving are the very things that are really going to matter on a Mars mission.
“We need the crew to be getting the right answer 100 per cent of the time.”
She explained even for an astronaut, the psychological demands of this Mars journey will be exceptional.
The spacecraft will be small, roughly the size of a studio apartment, and the round-trip journey will take almost three years.
She said: “Astronauts are super humans. They are people who are incredibly physically fit and extremely smart.
“We’re taking an already state-of-the-art crew selection system and making it even better by finding the values, traits and other characteristics that will allow NASA to compose crews that will get along.”
So the study involved two analog crews in a simulated space craft at Human Experimentation Research Analog (HERA) in the Johnson Space Center in Houston and the SIRIUS mission in the NEK analog located in the Institute for Bio-Medical Problems (IBMP) in Russia.
The crews were isolated on mock missions for up to 45 days and researchers collect moment-to-moment metrics about individual performance, moods, psychosocial adaptation and more.
A mock mission control outside the capsule augments the realism with sound effects, vibrations and communication delays.
Communication delays with worldwide mission controls will exceed the 20-minute mark. In that sense, the Mars mission will be like no mission that has come before.
Prof Contractor said: “A lot of the past efforts to try to create models to simulate the future have run into criticism because people have said it’s not really grounded in good data.
“What we have here is unprecedented good data. We aren’t talking about intuition and expert views, this model is based on real data.”
The aim was to establish the effects of isolation and confinement on team functioning, to identify methods to improve team performance, and to develop a predictive model that NASA could use to assemble the ideal team and identify potential issues with already composed teams before and during the mission.
While sleep deprived the isolated crews were told to preform tasks and how they coped was measured.
The next phase of the research involves using the model to predict breakdowns and problems a new HERA crew will experience and making changes to “who works with whom, on what, when,” Prof Contractor said.
“We are going to run our model to see how we can nudge the team into a more positive path and make them more successful.”
The researchers are also expanding the experiment to the SIRIUS analog in Moscow, where, beginning on March 15, four Russians and two Americans, will undertake a 120-day fictional mission around the moon, and including a moon landing operation.
Contractor and DeChurch are in the midst of four NASA-funded projects exploring team dynamics and compatibility in preparation for the Mars journey.
The findings so far were presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Washington DC.
by Tony Whitfield