Usually when co-workers irritate each other, they can let off steam by spending time with family or going for a jog. But in the cramped quarters of a space capsule, it's tough to find a place to decompress after a challenging workday. And over time, little disagreements can erode an astronaut's ability to function as part of a team, says Eduardo Salas, PhD, an industrial-organizational psychologist at the University of Central Florida (UCF).

"It's not like someone can leave if they're not getting along," says Salas, a psychology professor who also directs the Human Systems Integration Research program at the school's Institute for Simulation and Training. "Team cohesion is paramount to success."

Dr. Eduardo Salas’s team is focused on helping astronauts be more aware of their interactions with others and manage conflict while in orbit.In fact, a space mission can be disastrous without it. Errors indirectly caused by team members' conflicts can have dire consequences. "People can die," he says.

To avert such human error, Salas, along with his UCF colleague Kimberly Smith-Jentsch, PhD, and several other industrial-organizational psychologists are using NASA funding to conduct research that helps inform the team selection and training for the agency's mission to Mars, tentatively scheduled for 2030.

The mission will require the astronauts to live and work together in what's known as an "isolated, confined and extreme" environment for almost three years — a team dynamic that is relatively unknown, says Scott Tannenbaum, PhD, another I/O psychologist. He and John Mathieu, PhD, of the University of Connecticut, are using a NASA grant to study how to best compose and develop a resilient, adaptive and self-sustaining team for long-duration space exploration.

"No one has traveled that far out in space for that long, so it's not like we can take a look at research that's been done elsewhere," says Tannenbaum, president of the consulting firm The Group for Organizational Effectiveness, based in Albany, N.Y. "Probably the closest thing to the environment these astronauts will face is if you go back hundreds of years and look at the ships that crossed the ocean. So it's an interesting, exciting and important area of research to which I think psychologists have a lot to contribute."

The right mix

In addition to the space capsule's close quarters and lack of privacy, other major challenges the Mars team will face are the constant noise of machinery, a 15- to 20-minute communication lag time between the astronauts and the Houston-based NASA headquarters grounds crew, and the biological changes that arise from low gravity and a lack of a sunlight-based 24-hour day.

"Astronauts at the International Space Station (ISS) live spaciously compared to the capsule the Mars team will use," says Michigan State University's Steve Kozlowski, PhD, who is using the NASA funding his team received to develop tools to monitor the Mars team's cohesiveness over time. The International Space Station's length and width is about the size of a football field including the end zones. The Mars capsule, while not yet developed, will likely be closer to the size of a small kitchen.

"ISS astronauts also enjoyed 24/7 communication access to anyone on the planet, weekly video calls with their family and weekly support meetings with a psychologist," says Kozlowski. Such outside mental health support will not be as readily available for the Mars mission due to the large time lag, "making this a much more team-centric mission than ever before," he says.

That's the key reason Tannenbaum and his team are examining how to create a crew that will work well together in addition to being highly skilled at their individual tasks. While the Mars mission crew won't be selected for several more years, Tannenbaum says, in the short term their work will focus on crews for shorter missions, such as to the International Space Station.

In addition, previous research he and his team have conducted with the U.S. Army has shown that team composition can predict how well a team coordinates, communicates and resolves conflicts above and beyond what might be predicted based on individual team member characteristics.

"It's not just a matter of us taking the four or five most individually capable individuals and assuming that's going to make a good team for a three-year mission in that type of isolated, confined and extreme environment," Tannenbaum says. "For example, can you imagine a team that's made up of all very strong challengers who tend to question a lot of things? Nothing would ever get done. But similarly, having a team that has none of them is a problem as well."

Supporting team success

Even once a balanced team is put together, the capsule's close quarters and lack of privacy could still lead to cooperation, coordination and communication problems for the astronauts, Kozlowski says. While a curt interaction among team members after a rough night's sleep might seem minor at the time, research has shown that being the target of rudeness can drain a person's cognitive resources and make it more difficult for him or her to stay focused.

"A spat with one team member can lead to isolation or depression, and can affect not just the interactions with that team member but between all team members," Kozlowski says.

How often will the team face such issues and how will they recover? Kozlowski and his colleagues are studying the dynamics of NASA teams living in environments such as Antarctica, which is similar to the extreme space environment the Mars team will face. They're also working with a group of engineers to develop a wireless "badge" that astronauts would wear to monitor team collaboration and cohesion while the Mars team is in transit.

The badges would have motion detection built in and could monitor which astronaut approached the other, as well as the vocal intensity, heart rate and face-time distance between other sensor-wearing team members. "From that, we might infer that there was an argument or altercation, and then we could monitor subsequent interactions more closely, provide the crew with feedback and alert the ground crew if necessary," Kozlowski says.

Salas's team is focused on helping astronauts be more aware of their interactions with others and manage conflict while in orbit. The key, according to psychological research, is that people can learn to work more effectively together. According to a Salas-led 2008 meta-analysis of 2,650 teams, team training can improve a team's performance by nearly 20 percent (Human Factors, 2008).

Salas and his team are using their NASA funding to develop, implement and evaluate interventions to maximize space crew cohesion and mitigate negative psychosocial effects of long-duration missions, as well as measure crew cohesion over time. They're focused on identifying stressors among spaceflight crews — such as lack of space and privacy — and working to pinpoint strategies, such as team self-correction and regulation, to help astronauts cope with such stressors during the mission. The astronauts will learn these strategies along with their more traditional technical training and anti-gravity acclimation.

"It's really about setting the conditions that lead to success," he says.

Amy Novotney is a writer in Chicago.