Group to create ‘blueprint' of social, psychological effects for first Martians

Florida Tech Buzz Aldrin Space Institute hosts workshop

A Hi-SEAS crew member reads a book on an isolated Mars-like site on the Big Island of Hawaii.
A Hi-SEAS crew member reads a book on an isolated Mars-like site on the Big Island of Hawaii.

MELBOURNE, Fla. – When humans leave Earth with no plans to return there will be stress and excitement when they land on Mars, but there will also probably be boredom and petty arguments about who recycles the human waste into fuel.

Social scientists gathered this month at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex to address the human-side of colonizing Mars.

The two-day workshop organized by the Buzz Aldrin Space Institute and Florida Institute of Technology brought together scholars of social science to come up with the psychological, sociological and human performance challenges that could come up as humans colonize the Red Planet.

The group of scientists discussed living in extreme environments with help from robots, psychological stressors of space travel, and how future Martians will adapt during the colonization as a team.

Dr. Jessica Wildman, research director for the Institute for Cross Cultural Management at Florida Tech, led the planning and organization of this unique workshop.

"The goal of the workshop is to create a blueprint or road map in this area where these disciplines need to come together," Wildman said.

There is a lot of research on the effects of long stays in space thanks to the International Space Station and studies like Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or Hi-SEAS, where people live for eight months on the Big Island of Hawai’i to simulate a Mars mission.

But more research is needed on the social ramifications of when humans go on missions and never come back to Earth, Wildman said.

Anthropologists can help provide insight for the first humans to arrive on Mars by looking to what we know about the early explorers of our home planet.

"They got on boats without knowing where that boat was going to land, without knowing if there was a place to start (a) life," Wildman said.

Wildman said people with terminal diseases and crews who go to the Antarctica for long-stays are also good comparisons for psychological effects.

How people will actually respond to a permanent stay on the Red Planet is the unanswered question, Wildman said.

"We're interested in the entire human problem, from selecting the (crew)," she said. "To how you combine them, group dynamics, how they interact with people."

Wildman, who studies team dynamics, and her colleagues interviewed former astronauts, space psychologists and mission directors to get a better understanding of the social impacts of working as a team.

"We tend to focus on what goes wrong in space, but a lot of the stories they were telling us had nothing to do with what was going wrong, but the routine day-to-day," she said.

People who make ideal astronauts tend to be good team player and can get along with others, but also are OK being on their own in a very confined personal space.

"We're trying to find the Unicorns of people, there are only one or two on the planet," Wildman said.

Shawn Burke, professor of research with Institute for Simulation & Training at the University of Central Florida, has been awarded several NASA grants to studies team dynamics and behavior of simulated long-duration missions.

Burke is using data from NASA’s Johnson Space Center Human Exploration Research Analog or HERA study, in which test subjects live in a three-story habitat for up to 45 days.

Four HERA crew members from Campaign 2, Mission 4 before they enter the habitat for a 2-week simulation.
Four HERA crew members from Campaign 2, Mission 4 before they enter the habitat for a 2-week simulation.

"We’re trying to understand how these longer duration missions are going to impact team dynamics," Burke said. "For teams to be effective there are tasks roles and social roles, (we're) looking to see how those play out."

The first Martians will need to be more self reliant, because of the communication delays between Earth and the Red Planet.

Astronauts' days on the space station are scheduled by a team of people. On the journey to Mars, training people to engage in critical decision making will be key.

"How do you give them that autonomy because that's not how it's been in the past?" Wildman said.

Leadership roles will likely play a big role in that. Asked what makes a good leader, Burke and Wildman both said good leaders have less-dominating personalities than one would expect.

“You don’t want that person that is a power seeker, (leaders) tend to be someone on these teams that takes on the roles to make sure that the social, emotional needs are being met, like a nurturing role and cohesion with the team,” Burke said.

Within the HERA study, scientists are looking at how independence in decision making is affecting the way leadership plays out, Burke said.

“From what we’ve seen it’s not so much that someone steps up and says ‘Hey you need to go do this,’ those leadership roles are emerging," Burke said.

Some attendees have applied their work to spaceflight before, others are interested in the field but have not worked on any studies related to spaceflight.

NASA's 2017 astronaut candidates take a group photo at Ellington Field near Johnson Space Center.
NASA's 2017 astronaut candidates take a group photo at Ellington Field near Johnson Space Center.

Wildman said she hopes the diverse group will lead to fresh ideas from all areas of social sciences toward helping us better understand who can handle and how they will cope with deep-space travel.

Last week NASA introduced 12 new astronauts selected to fly on the space agency’s next generation spacecraft, the Orion.

The astronaut class of 2017 includes doctors, scientists, engineers, pilots and military officers. They range in age from 29 to 42, and have worked in submarines, emergency rooms, university lecture halls, jet cockpits and battleships.

More than 18,300 people applied during a brief application period 1 ½ years ago.

About the Author: