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Picking a Mars Spacemate

By Belinda Lanks
Mike Rosen
Mike Rosen is a human factors psychologist who researches teamwork and patient safety as well as simulation-based training. He’s an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

It’s not easy to land a job as an astronaut. Candidates must be technically skilled, smart, and highly adaptive. And for those astronauts chosen for a mission to Mars, NASA has a particularly stringent requirement: The small cadre on that mission, slated for sometime after 2030, will have to work exceptionally well as a team.

“NASA is really great at picking phenomenal people,” says Mike Rosen, a Johns Hopkins psychologist. “But out of those, how do you find the combination of skills and traits and personalities that are going to work well together for a long period of time?”

To figure that out, NASA has given Rosen and his team of researchers a grant to identify the kinds of people who will thrive for three years living and working together in tight quarters and with little outside communication. “We’re not just picking people,” Rosen says. “We’re helping to develop a process to pick teams.” By studying medical residents working under similar conditions, Rosen hopes to ensure that the inaugural Mars astronauts will have not only the right stuff but the right mix.

Rosen received one of 11 NASA grants totaling $5.7 million to investigate how to improve astronaut health and performance during future deep space missions. Researchers hope to determine ways of mitigating the problems that astronauts will encounter on a 34 million mile–long mission to Mars. A team from the University of Pennsylvania, based at a remote marine research station in Antarctica, will explore how exercise combined with video games can lessen sensory deprivation in an extreme, isolated, and desolate setting. At the University of Central Florida, researchers will develop strategies to help an international crew resolve conflicts arising from cultural differences.

Optimal interpersonal dynamics will be paramount for a group facing unprecedented challenges. Not only will they be restricted to a small space, but they will have to rely solely on one another for human interaction interaction; there will be a 20-minute communication delay between the spacecraft and mission control in Houston. “They’re going to basically be a family—their only social support system and contact for years,” says Rosen, who is an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Rosen’s study seeks to identify the attributes best suited to creating a copacetic team. “You can’t have them all be the 100 percent Type A test-pilot people that NASA selected for the Apollo mission,” Rosen says. “People are going to have to balance each other to some extent.” Ideal candidates will perform well under pressure, contribute to the group, and avoid rankling their colleagues. Those with potentially annoying tics, boisterous demeanors, or reclusive tendencies will likely be weeded out.

To formalize NASA’s future astronaut selection process, Rosen will recruit and study Johns Hopkins surgical and critical care residents. They already spend up to 80 hours a week performing highly cognitive, stressful work in the confined spaces of intensive care units for four to six weeks at a time, making them good stand-ins for astronauts. (The people who will embark on the Mars mission are likely still in high school.) The residents will answer questionnaires as well as wear sensor-equipped wristbands, similar to Fitbit fitness trackers, which will unobtrusively monitor their movement patterns, heart rates, and other physiological responses as they go about their work. The wristbands, Rosen says, provide insights into how well subjects are handling their situations beyond what they self-report.

NASA will do its best to predict how the team members will behave as they navigate circumstances they’ve never seen before. “With a lot of current missions, you can train and overtrain, so there isn’t anything in space that you haven’t mastered on the ground,” Rosen says. “That’s probably not going to be feasible for Mars. There are a lot more unknowns at this point.”

Image above by Andrea Ucini; Portrait by Caroline Andrieu

Mike Rosen is helping NASA understand how best to assess potential astronauts for an inaugural mission to Mars. Rosen hopes to ensure that the astronauts will have not only the right stuff but the right mix of personalities.

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