What makes an astronaut Mars mission material?

With President Obama predicting humans will visit Mars by the mid-2030s, an expert on human performance in extreme environments set out to study how astronauts will handle the conditions.
Written by Christina Hernandez Sherwood, Contributing Writer

With President Obama predicting humans will visit Mars by the mid-2030s, an expert on human performance in extreme environments set out to study how astronauts will handle the conditions. I spoke recently with Sheryl Bishop, an associate professor of nursing at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, about what makes an astronaut Mars material.

Talk about the conditions the Mars crew will face.

It's a long trip out. A lot of problems can start on that trip [and] be exacerbated once they're on the surface. There's a great deal of monotony. You're in a confined space. There are a very limited number of people to interact with. Communication gets more and more difficult with your family and friends and support system back home. You become more and more isolated. You won't have a whole lot to do. It's mostly station maintenance. You're preparing for something that's six or eight months down the road. It's a long period of enforced inactivity in preparation for something that's exciting and challenging.

You have a period on the surface [of Mars] that has a different set of issues. Once you're on the surface, you have all these things to do. You're an explorer. You're on virgin territory.

Then there's a third phase when they return. They've already done all the exiting stuff. They don't have the anticipation of the new, challenging stuff.

What personal attributes should crew members have in order to be successful on this mission?

We have some intriguing pieces of evidence. We looked at individuals who wintered in Antarctica and we've looked at trekking teams in other extreme environments. There seems to be a coherent picture emerging. (I say 'emerging' because these are small groups and they're very disparate environments. They come together for reasons other than a Mars mission.) We seem to be able to say with some confidence that the kind of individual selected for short-duration [missions] is very different from [the person chosen for] an exploratory mission, where you'll stay for a prolonged period of time.

NASA began to pay attention to who they were assigning to shuttle missions as opposed to those they were assigning to stay on International Space Station because that kind of resident personality requires that you be able to get along with individuals. You have to be able to tolerate being confined to a very small space with just a few people. There's a lot of monotony. You can't leave. You can't go outside. You can't change your scenery. That person is very different from the person who wants to have something to accomplish each day. We will probably need individuals that are more like the people we've been selecting for International Space Station because they have to endure a great deal of confinement.

What are the potential consequences of choosing the wrong type of person for the Mars crew?

You [could] have an individual who becomes terribly unhappy. They desire stimulation or change, and here they're locked into the same environment with the same people for a prolonged period of time. They become terribly dispirited.

We have infrequently seen this happening in Antarctica. I have a colleague who was the doctor for the South Pole several years ago. The day after they shut down South Pole for the winter -- all the summer people had left and all the planes flew off -- an individual walks into his office and says, I can't do this. There were nine months until the next plane would come back. The way the individual handled it is that every week he showed up in the doctor's office to spend an hour emoting about how unhappy he was -- for nine months. The doctor was saying what a huge stress that was on him.

You have the individual that's compromised. They become increasingly unhappy and affect everybody around them. Their unhappiness starts impacting the functioning of others. You have to start worrying about that individual not being able to do their job and how that individual is impacting everybody around them. It's a significant concern. It has an impact on the whole group.

How do you determine in advance who the right people are?

You do the best job that you can selecting the individuals you think are going to have the best chance of being the right fit. [But] our measures are not predictive. There are a lot of things about personality that are very situation driven. Once we select people that personality-wise seem to be the best fit, we need to put that pool of individuals through additional testing. [For example], send them to Antarctica for a winter to see how well they deal with that degree of confinement and isolation and how they interact with other members of the team. Out of that pool of people, you select the group that is the best fit, that's the most tolerant of the situation and is still effective. It's a multi-pronged process.

What's next for you and this work?

There's really no funding for it. The human side of space comes second to the nuts and bolts and hardware. Right now, I have a group that's getting ready to do a summer mission at The Mars Society facility on Devon Island. I'll be running my psychological studies and team measures. I get contacted periodically by people doing different kinds of expeditions. As those opportunities come up, I collect data on those individuals because each small group gives me another opportunity to see if I notice the same kinds of behaviors and the same kinds of coping skills.

How did you end up doing this work?

When I decided to do my doctorate, I wanted to do something related to space. I thought, They keep talking about all the hardware, but what about the people? I wanted to know what would make individuals most adaptable to an extraordinary and extreme environment like this. Bob Helmreich at the University of Texas was already doing a lot of work with NASA looking at team performance. I'm from Texas, so that seemed to be a great fit. I went to the University of Texas to do my doctorate work.

Everybody laughs when you say, I want to study astronauts. Astronauts are probably the most difficult people in the world to get access to. Once I got into looking at how teams operate in analog environments, then my opportunities became pretty widespread. When you're looking at isolation and confinement, then a particular analog environment does not become as important as how much isolation and confinement that environment provides. That's why I've been able to look at some fairly widespread teams with some very unusual environments.

Photo: Sheryl Bishop

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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