Three UCF professors recently won a $1.2 million grant from NASA to do research on teamwork training for the purpose of sending a crew of astronauts to Mars by 2030.
Psychology professors Eduardo Salas and Kim Jentsch along with Stephen Fiore, an assistant professor from the department of Philosophy, wrote a proposal to NASA in response to the space organization’s call about 3-4 years ago for researchers on team cohesion, and their group was one of the few chosen winners to receive funding for this project.
“Here at UCF, we are probably the world’s experts on teamwork, team performance and team training,” Salas said.
Helping the future Mars-bound team of astronauts help themselves while on their space trip is the main goal, said Salas and Jentsch. Their concerns mainly consist of how the team of 5-7 astronauts is going to stick together. So far, they have interviewed 12-15 people that have been in the international space station for at least 3 months so as to obtain a better idea of teamwork needs.
“You give them strategies so that they can self-correct any problems they have, that they can adjust what they are doing based on a number of probes or debriefing that we help them conduct,” Salas said. “This is all done by themselves on their way there.”
Jentsch agrees, and also said it’s not possible to train for everything that could go wrong, since the unknown gets in the way. She goes on to describe what NASA’s training will probably look like.
“They’re going to have to train a lot more people than they plan on sending,” Jentsch said. “They’re probably going to have a group of people and say ‘we’re going to select out of these 50.’ It’s kind of like Big Brother or Survivor; they’re going to get voted off one at a time, so it’s almost like training and a tryout at the same time to see who can get along with each other.”
The professors also work by telling NASA in what order it makes sense to train. For example, the astronauts can’t be trained right away to learn how to work the vehicle they are going to journey in, as technology is constantly changing, so there is no certainty as far as that is concerned. The three are trying to identify what they’re sure the astronauts need to know, such as team skills and regulation of stress.
While the three are not actually making the selection of the astronauts themselves, they are indirectly involved—they’re just behind the scenes trying to figure out what kind of training they need and what it should look like. Salas emphasized the importance of cohesion, a shared understanding and mutual performance monitoring.
“The first thing you need to have is collective orientation,” Salas said. “Collective orientation is the position that most of us have, to seek and like the info from others, as opposed to egocentric, who are the lone wolves. Who, no matter what you do, no matter what you say, no matter what setting you put them in, they are lone wolves.”
Jentsch also shared her thoughts on selection. It’s all about training, since there are no perfect people.
“One of the challenges is that normally at work, you know, you work with your work team, and if you get irritated with them, you can go home to spend time with family, run or do something else and then the next day, you’re like okay, I’m over what I was angry about,” Jentsch said. “But with astronauts, they live together and work together, so they don’t have anywhere to go to sort of diffuse the conflict. I don’t think you can solve the problem completely through selection, because I don’t think there’s any perfect six people you can put together for three years that would not fight.”
There are, however, concerns for the unknown, as no one has ever gone to mars, so there are no experts and therefore no studies to work off of. Consequently, the three professors have to make assumptions and predictions of how to train a team to live in such a confined environment as the space shuttle for up to 30 months. The main way to train is to create the same setting the astronauts will be performing in.
“We need more longitudinal studies of team dynamics in a confined environment,” Salas said. “That’s what science lacks. Very few studies are longitudinal—you need a place to put a bunch of experts to perform a number of tasks for a long period of time, and just that proposition is very costly.”
Then Salas explained that while a sports team and space team have some similarities, there are some extreme differences.
“The difference with a sports team is, first of all, the consequence for error could be detrimental in space,” Salas said. “People can die, and it can be very costly.”
Stephen Gerdts, a UCF Freshman majoring in Aerospace Engineering, found the Mission to Mars to be very significant to the future.
“It’s important to me because it’s the next big thing, the next frontier,” Gerdts said. “People lost interest after the Apollo mission because of a loss of funding, but it [the mission] is possible. It’d be having your name up in history—engineers do things to obtain recognition from peers, and NASA is the best recognition.”