Cover Story

 As hardy as astronauts are, long-term space missions will test their psychological mettle. How long can they stay in space before feeling isolated and depressed? Can they get a good night's sleep when they no longer experience daylight? Do they maintain the ability to work with their other team members after living with them for months?

NASA has invested in major efforts related to such concerns. At the NASA-funded National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI), a competitive consortium of university researchers, David Dinges, PhD, and his team are developing techniques that will assess astronauts' performance in space and intervene if there are problems. These include a brief self-assessment tool called the psychomotor vigilance test, or PVT, and an optical computer recognition scanner that tracks facial expressions to assess mood and depression.

"We're creating technologies that can help astronauts understand the status of their brain and behavior, to help them stay sharp so they know when their behavioral capability is being affected by stress, depression and fatigue-any of which can result in a critical error," says Dinges, who heads the NSBRI's neurobehavioral and psychosocial factors team.

After conducting standard laboratory experiments, the researchers take their subjects into an underwater lab known as Aquarius, located off the coast of Key Largo, Fla.

Aquarius creates an environment that has some of the same behavioral challenges as space flight. "Astronauts are too deep to be rescued quickly if something happens," explains Dinges. "It's a confined, isolated environment where they perform a great deal of work, and the ocean floor work entails dealing with partial gravity and a lunar landscape."

Astronauts live in the facility for one to three weeks, and Dinges's team collects data on them. In addition to measuring the astronauts' vigilance, attention and psychomotor speed with the PVT, Dinges tracks the astronauts' sleep-wake cycles and measures their saliva to gauge levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The astronauts also fill out questionnaires related to work load, mood and fatigue.

Self-help for astronauts

All of this information is then funneled into a database that is defining "typical" astronaut performance and will be used to examine astronauts' functioning in space, Dinges says. For example, PVT data will help to craft the next version of the technique, which will provide astronauts feedback on how they're doing compared with their normal performance. The technique will also recommend strategies to mitigate performance declines: Astronauts may be advised to engage in a computerized cognitive behavioral treatment for depression, to take a medication, to get more sleep, or even to have a cup of coffee.

In collaberation with computer and information scientist Dimitris Metaxas, PhD, of Rutgers University, Dinges has also been helping to create an optical monitor to observe astronauts' facial expressions and mood states.

"The camera might pick up that a person's smile rate has dropped way off or that their anxiety expressions are increasing," Dinges explains. That information will be used to provide personalized feedback to help the person get back on track.

From Dinges' perspective, such advances aren't Orwellian intrusions but rather helpful tools. In fact, such projects represent his guiding passion: making practical contributions to behavioral needs.

"I like Benjamin Franklin's idea that it's good to know things, but that whenever possible, they should be in the service of practical problems," he says.

Fostering teamwork

Meanwhile, NSBRI psychologist Judith Orasanu, PhD, of NASA Ames Research Center, her colleagues at NASA and Ute Fischer, PhD, of the Georgia Institute of Technology, are examining how to maximize the performance, cohesion, communication and well-being of astronaut teams.

In a lab created at NASA-Ames, the researchers have been studying surrogate "crews" who work together for up to a week on simulated lunar missions to observe how they gel and change over time. Like that of Dinges, Orasanu's work is developing technologies to monitor the health and capability of the crew, but at the team level.

In two sets of studies, team members got to know one another over a weekend and then completed computerized tasks that mimic problems crews might encounter in space, such as going out on repair missions with limited personnel and resources, or addressing medical emergencies. The researchers varied the simulated missions according to factors such as differing levels of task difficulty and cooperative or competitive goals, and they varied teams according to gender composition. By gathering information on personality variables, stress responses, team interaction and mission performance, they are building models of successful crew performance that can ultimately be useful on long-term missions.

Their data provide interesting insights on teamwork, including that:

  •  Mixed-gender groups perform better than all-male or all-female groups, especially in competitive conditions. Furthermore, competitive team goal instructions reduce performance in all-female teams, but have no effect on male teams.

  •  High levels of anger and aggression are linked to worse team performance, and high levels of positive affect-joking and complimenting each others' performance, for example-to better team performance.

  •  Team members who collaborate are more successful than those who compete with each other or where one member tries to work alone.

They also found that the overall composition of the team-including aggregate personality characteristics and the way teams interact-is more important than individual personality variables. Yet some personality "types" might be better suited to certain positions than others, the researchers find. Emerging group leaders, for instance, tend to be more extroverted, less neurotic and more agreeable than their peers. Meanwhile, successful base coordinators-whose job is to perform vital team-communication and coordination duties such as evaluating and forwarding critical information about environmental conditions-are more agreeable and less reactive to stress. "They're kind of like Gene Kranz in Apollo 13-calm, steady and not excited-just what you want in mission control," Orasanu says.

In another study, the researchers compared two types of team training: interpersonal relations training, designed to foster crew-member cohesion; and team adaptation and coordination training, designed to train crews to cope with stress and communicate effectively.

Team adaptation and coordination training "produced the best performance and the most success in managing the very difficult missions," says Orasanu, in part, she believes, because it gave crews the opportunity to practice teamwork and to debrief before simulated missions. Interpersonal relations training did not achieve its goal of improving team cohesion, which prior studies show is linked to high levels of team coordination and mission success.

Given these findings, the researchers are now tailoring and refining the team adaptation approach so it's ready to be used in flight controller and astronaut training.

"We're not doing research on this any more," Orasanu says. "We're now attempting to make these strategies more useful for NASA so they can start applying them."

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.