How to Get Along in Space

NASA has started a new training program to help space station residents fight off cabin fever.

Thick snow blanketed the aspen woods outside Canadian Forces Base Cold Lake in northern Alberta. Being dumped from a helicopter into this desolate and isolated landscape with only a 30-year-old map, a compass, and a tent would unnerve the most cool-headed of astronauts.

Four-time shuttle flier Jim Wetherbee recalls the frigid predicament in which he and five fellow astronauts found themselves last winter: “The sun was going down and we couldn’t find a path to get up this hill with this 260-pound toboggan,” he says. “There was a lot of pressure on the leader to figure out what to do. It was a classic case where the team started to break down a little bit.”

And all Wetherbee could do was stand back and watch. For this drill, the shuttle mission commander was subordinate to a rookie training for a four-month stint aboard the International Space Station. “I was a little bit worried on one hand, but interested to see what the outcome would be on the other,” Wetherbee confides. “When we finally got to the campsite and got the tent up, there was a huge sense of accomplishment. It gets really scary when it’s 36 degrees below zero.”

Three teams of astronauts journeyed to Cold Lake last February and March to learn team dynamics and the finer points of working together. Their teacher: Canada’s Ministry of Defence, known for its expertise in winter warfare. In a six-day outing, each team of six donned parkas and mukluks to drag an overloaded toboggan through miles of knee-deep snow. There were occasional blizzard conditions—brisk winds blowing dry snow into opaque curtains of white around the astronauts as they huddled together. They cooked on portable stoves and used primitive latrines. They struck and set up camp several times a day. They performed myriad menial tasks and science experiments. Amid increasing physical demands, they were deprived of sleep. All of it was directed on walkie-talkie by survival experts who lurked nearby and spied on the astronauts with night-vision goggles.

“The idea is for them to learn about themselves and coping methods in confined, stressful situations,” says Brian Houlgate, a lieutenant colonel in charge of international programs for the Canadian Aerospace Training Project in Ottawa. The Cold Lake experience is part of a new NASA program designed to emphasize the psychosocial challenges a group must deal with when it is stuck in a harsh environment.

Is the Canadian expedition a decent simulation of spaceflight? Drillmaster Colin Norris suspects so. Says Norris, a winter warfare and survival expert retired from the Canadian army: “I’ve never been up there, but I have been in an arctic tent, and after about three weeks or so, just the way somebody slurps their pork and beans will drive you up the wall.”

 “Ihave talked with some of the original astronauts,” says Nick Kanas, a psychiatrist at the University of California at San Francisco who studies the psychosocial aspects of spaceflight, “and one of them sort of joked and said to me that ‘In my day, our idea of a spaceflight was you go up and you come down in time for cocktails,’ and he says he doesn’t know how people can go up and stay for months on end in space.”

It’s a good question. Traditionally, NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston has focused its training largely on preparing and rehearsing for spacewalks and other mission tasks. From their assignment to a crew until the end of the mission—typically eight months but sometimes as long as two or three years—astronauts work and party together. They share an office and socialize outside it. All this togetherness is supposed to help them work out interpersonal frictions. Usually it works. When it doesn’t, they’re expected to maintain professional decorum.

“It becomes a different story when missions become four, five, six, seven months,” says Kanas. “There are breakdowns I think in people’s ability to tolerate psychosocial stresses after the first couple of months.” The Russian literature, he says, shows that “there seems to be a period of about a month or two where people can kind of handle anything, but after that the psychological and interpersonal stresses start to build and then the factors about territoriality, withdrawing from each other, not getting along, getting tired of hearing the same old story, displacing tension to the ground—all these factors start to build, and I think become progressively worse over time unless they’re dealt with and recognized.”

Between 1996 and 1998, U.S. shuttle astronauts got a taste of these long-term stresses when they participated in the Mir-shuttle program, a series of seven missions in which they spent three to six months working with cosmonauts on the Russian space station Mir. NASA used these missions as a bridge to its own future outpost in the sky—the International Space Station. The agency learned efficient ways to deliver supplies and how to train crew members to handle emergencies. But most importantly, from the lengthy missions, collectively known as Phase One of the ISS Program, NASA realized it had underestimated the emotional and social problems that people living in spacecraft for extended periods can experience. John Blaha, for example, suffered deep depression during his first month on Mir. He missed his wife, he felt like a stranger to his crewmates, and he was unhappy that he couldn’t vote in the 1996 U.S. presidential election. Jerry Linenger, who followed Blaha, felt profoundly isolated on the station, despite his experiences in the Navy on guided-missile destroyers, submarines, and even a virtually deserted island. Linenger often was at odds with ground controllers, who thought him moody.

NASA assigned Nick Kanas to study the psychosocial experiences of the shuttle-Mir crews. The psychiatrist had each U.S. astronaut fill out a weekly questionnaire rating his or her emotional state, as well as the state of the group as a whole. Kanas and his coworkers are now analyzing the results and starting to quantify the cohesiveness and tensions of the groups.

At the crews’ request, Kanas disguised the data just enough to protect identities and keep responses from being associated with specific events. Three major preliminary findings have emerged so far. First, in comparing the first and second halves of a mission, Kanas saw that while the crew’s mental and emotional functioning did deteriorate to some extent, mission duration itself did not seem to significantly affect interpersonal relations. Now, says the researcher, “We’re analyzing stressful events that occurred during the missions to see if they’re a more powerful predictor of changes in crew tension, cohesion, and leadership than just simply being together for a long period of time.”

A second finding involves a phenomenon termed displacement. Just as a couple might blame relatives for problems within their own marriage, space crews who get into emotional tussles with each other might displace their anger toward controllers on the ground. “We found on our measures in both the crew members and people on the ground in mission control that they [the astronauts] tended to displace negative feelings during the particularly stressful times that they had,” says Kanas. “Crew-ground communication is very important and if crew members and ground personnel are not understanding each other’s feelings…it can lead to distortions in communication and difficulty when, in fact, [the problem] may not even be related to the two [groups] at all.”

The third major finding of the shuttle-Mir study was that U.S. and Russian subjects differed from each other in their responses, both in space and on the ground. “In general, Americans seemed to be a little more dysphoric in their work environment,” says Kanas. The researchers concluded that the feelings of discontent resulted from the way the crews were combined. “There was one American and two Russians on all of these missions,” Kanas says, “and the American was always in the minority, and basically the Americans were flying on a Russian vessel with a Russian commander where the predominant language was Russian, where all the jokes and things were in Russian. And I think the U.S. crew members felt basically socially isolated in that kind of environment.”

In addition, he says, “The Americans, both on the ground and in space, felt that they were under more work pressure, significantly more, than the Russians did.” That finding could be merely an artifact of language—the Russian wording for “work pressure” may imply something different from what “work pressure” suggests to an American. Or the finding might mean that the Americans really did feel more pressure.

The studies have some flaws. The researchers expected the crews to be passing the time on Mir primarily in boredom and didn’t expect them to be subjected to the stresses they experienced, such as the fire that broke out on Mir. “For some of the events that were especially stressful, the crews were so busy—I hate to use the pun of ‘putting out a fire’—but were so busy taking care of…whatever happened that they did not fill out the questionnaires,” Kanas says. When such busy times occurred, the astronauts would fill out the questionnaire after the incidents, yielding results that weren’t as accurate.

Still, even with flaws, Kanas believes his team’s study is the first to make significant observations about the psychosocial dimensions of long-term spaceflight.

In the wake of the Mir missions, says chief astronaut Charlie Precourt, “we recognized we were not as prepared as we ought to have been, either from a management standpoint or a crew training standpoint. We saw shortfalls involving crew members’ understanding of the personal interactions, which could happen to anybody, even brothers and sisters….

“We started to look at other [training] models that are out there, like expeditions to Antarctica and the outdoor leadership schools, that would…arm people with the right tools to persevere through the hard times.”

The architects of the training regime that NASA is instituting include Precourt and Shannon Lucid, the second astronaut to live aboard Mir. Says Lucid: “Everybody that came back from Mir said what I said: It doesn’t make any difference if you have the most high-tech, latest, state-of-the-art equipment. If you don’t have a crew that gets along, you’ll have a miserable experience.”

The training regime begins at the Johnson center with lectures by experts—arctic explorers, astronauts who went to Mir—on leadership and lessons learned. Reading assignments about psychology and polar expeditions supplement the classroom work. Psychologists who understand the explorer’s mindset spend time with the astronauts, prompting them to think about their likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, and responses to crisis situations. After that come the field trips: one to Cold Lake and a similar one to the National Outdoor Leadership School in Utah. Then the astronauts return to the Johnson center, where they are isolated in a chamber for a week, with no contact with the outside world. They prepare meals and give themselves sponge baths just as they would on the space station. NASA also sends astronauts to the Star City cosmonaut training center outside Moscow for courses in winter and water survival.

For the Cold Lake portion of the training, it wasn’t easy for the astronauts to figure out how to prepare. Participants in the first two  sessions were cagey, not wanting to reveal anything to subsequent participants that might spoil the training. “That was sort of unsettling,” says Lee Morin. “You got to feeling like you were asking for the secret questions on the test or something.”

A total of 18 people—17 astronauts and one flight surgeon-psychiatrist—took part in the training. Each group consisted of a mix of people with and without spaceflight experience. Three people (all rookies) were selected to take turns leading, each for two of the six days. “The three things we need to learn are leadership, followership, and self-maintenance,” says Dan Tani, a rookie who participated in the third session. “This is an excellent environment to learn those three things separately and intensively.”

Nearly everyone who participated returned to Houston changed—mostly in little ways. When Lee Morin, a microbiologist and former Navy flight surgeon awaiting his first flight assignment, took his turn as leader, he came across as bossy. He interpreted his civilian teammates’ behavior as passive-aggressive and they, in turn, wondered what had gotten into him. It wasn’t long before he learned to adjust his style to suit the team. “What I needed to do was be tolerant of them being more laid back than I would normally expect from military subordinates,” he says.

During his session, Charlie Camarda served as the leader on the last two days. By then everyone was tired, their performance was deteriorating, and they were called on to do an emergency rescue of an “injured” person. The team had to navigate across the frozen lakebed, find out what was wrong, and decide quickly whether to carry the victim back to safety or radio for a helicopter. “You have to be able to make decisions rapidly, size up your crew, and know who’s capable to do the job, and that entails monitoring the health of the other crew members,” says Camarda. “Is that person rested enough? Can he pull a 260-pound sled two miles to rescue a person, or should I pick someone else? It’s cliché, but the weakest link is the weakest person, and the simplest accident or malady of any of the crew could turn into something major in space as well as at Cold Lake.”

Camarda gives the experience high marks for exposing interpersonal friction. “In a very short period of time, you can tell different characteristics and traits of your fellow crew members that, if extrapolated over a period of time, could potentially be very annoying,” he says. “They introduced enough tedious work, enough physical labor that you were tired, fatigued. There was sleep deprivation. By four days into the six days you can notice a drop in performance.”

Nasty surprises pumped up the stress. Someone’s sleeping bag suddenly went missing. An “injured” snowmobiler appeared out of nowhere, screaming for help. Then there were the snow fleas. Lee Morin found them in his camp-stove coffee one chilly morning in the first week of March. “They look like coffee grounds until you realize they are climbing up out of the snow and into your food,” he says.  He happened to be carrying an otoscope, an ear probe with a light and a magnifying lens, and when he trained it on the snow fleas, he saw they resemble cockroaches.

As for slow periods, Mike Massimino recalls that his teammates passed the time telling stories about themselves—from childhood to college and the military to how they met their spouses—and getting to know one another better. A movie buff, Massimino kept everyone amused with his Godfather monologues. Levity defused conflict.

Massimino says the Cold Lake experience helped him learn some of the finer points of leadership. “Sometimes our tendency might be to not complain that ‘I’m feeling crummy,’ to not want to bring the group down,” he says. “It’s important for a leader to notice these things and look for signs. Who needs help? Who needs rest? Who needs to go to the bathroom? Things that sound almost silly are very important out there.”

The program is getting mixed reviews. Dan Tani loved the outdoor training. “I haven’t been in space, but I really feel like I’ve been in the environment,” says the MIT mechanical engineering grad. “I feel like I won’t have to go up the same steep learning curve that other first-timers will.”

Of the astronauts who have not gone through the training, some are skeptical. “It’s a solution in search of a problem,” says one, not wanting to be identified. Others say Cold Lake is the “in thing” to do to curry favors with Johnson Space Center officials who decide on flight assignments.

Patricia Santy, a former NASA flight surgeon and author of Choosing the Right Stuff: The Psychological Selection of Astronauts and Cosmonauts, thinks the training is merely a token gesture. “I’m glad that they’re finally doing this,” she says, “but I suspect it’s just this superficial attempt to allay any public criticism by showing [NASA] has some psychological stuff.”

Some of the psychosocial problems observed during the Mir missions may not resurface during the ISS missions. With 16 nations participating in the ISS program, Kanas predicts life will be easier than it was on Mir because minority cultures can band together—for example, one American and one Japanese against two Russians. “If you have a lot of people from different backgrounds,” the psychiatrist says, “in a way that might make it easier for people not to feel left out.”

In addition, Americans will probably feel less alone: English will be one of the major languages spoken on the ISS, and the missions—the early ones at least—will include either a U.S. commander or two U.S. subordinates. And because later missions will have larger crews, the interpersonal dynamics on the ISS may work better than those on Mir. Kanas says it’s a well-established finding of social psychology that of groups numbering between two and 11, larger groups tend to do better than smaller ones, and odd-numbered groups tend to do better than even-numbered ones. If you have larger groups, people always can find some kind of an ally so they won’t feel isolated. And if you have an odd number, people can get a consensus by voting.

For the ISS missions, Kanas and his team will look at the cultural sophistication and foreign language skills of each crew member in order to learn whether these factors affect group performance. Says Kanas: “We’ve been getting into ethnic food that they might like, we’re looking at their ability to be fluent in a language versus just speak it enough to get by, we’re looking for interest in dance of other countries—a number of factors that will hopefully tell us how tolerant each crew member is.”

During the ISS missions, both astronauts and mission control will be asked to assess the spacefarers’ moods and their group dynamics on a weekly basis, and to keep an incident log. Like the Mir-shuttle study, the ISS study will look for evidence of displacement, and for any changes in tension, cohesion, and leadership that occur between the first half of the mission and the second.

In the International Space Station era and beyond, astronauts will need to possess a different kind of Right Stuff. NASA will continue to need pilots who can keep their cool in the face of danger, but it will also need people who are emotionally and socially equipped to endure the tribulations of long-term space missions.

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