Often called “White Mars” because of its desolation and extreme
environment, teams working in Antarctica are ripe for psychological studies to
help guide future astronauts on deep space missions to destinations such as
Mars. On a journey to Mars, crews
will travel in a small vessel for months with little to see along the way.
Similarly, wintering in Antarctica means no sun and no way to leave the
continent for months. Two studies currently underway are investigating team
dynamics in the isolated environment of such a remote outpost.
NASA’s Human Research Program works to
understand the behavioral health implications of long-duration space missions,
and some of that research takes place in analogs. An analog is a research
environment used by scientists to study the physical and mental effects of
being in space by partially mimicking those conditions here on Earth.
Using humor in their work, NASA’s BARREL team in Antarctica perform what they call the “Low Wind Dance.” This team uses balloons to help understand space weather and need low wind to release their balloons. Teams such as this one, already working in Antarctica, are invited to participate in HRP’s CREWS and SCALE study to give researchers more information about team dynamics in an isolated environment. Image Credit: NASA/Goddard/Brett Anderson
“One of the things we know from analogs is that the social relations people
form is an important predictor to how well they can complete tasks together,”
said Leslie DeChurch, Ph.D., an analog researcher and professor of
communications and psychology at Northwestern University.
DeChurch’s study, titled Shared Cognitive Architectures for Long-term
Exploration (SCALE), is exploring how social relations and team cognition
are affected by isolation and confinement. This research may help enable teams
to maintain and improve recall of shared knowledge and have a better
understanding of the consequences of poor team performance.
High-performing teams have certain attributes, composition and dynamics.
Astronauts returning from the International Space Station, for instance, have
said humor is critical for diffusing tense situations in space. It is no
different when wintering-over in Antarctica.
Humor functions to bridge relations between major social categories and
helps facilitate high rates of team interactions that aid in calming conflicts.
“You need a clown on the team,” said Noshir Contractor, Ph.D., professor of
behavioral sciences also from Northwestern University. This insight is based on
prior research that
demonstrated the importance of the “clown role.”
Contractor’s study is a companion to SCALE titled Crew Recommender for
Effective Work in Space (CREWS). This study uses the research data for
developing a computer model that can help select the best crew team.
“We don’t have a perception that we’re going to tell them who to send on a
mission. But if they have a collection of people, it will work like a weather
forecast model,” Contractor said. “It’s a predictive model that says if you
choose this particular crew, here is what you are likely to see in terms of
team dynamics. And, if problems arise, here is how to intervene to ease those
Since they cannot go to Antarctica to observe the participants in person,
DeChurch and Contractor use a series of weekly surveys throughout the test
subjects’ stay in Antarctica. A starting profile is established then they are
asked questions about their perceptions of the relationships within the team
they work with as they form, change and grow throughout the timeframe. At the
end, Contractor and DeChurch will conduct Skype exit interviews with the
The SCALE and CREWS studies have been a part of the Human Exploration
Research Analog (HERA) research for the past
three years. The research is being expanded to SIRIUS-18/19 and Antarctica.
“SIRIUS is a multicultural six-person team and the study lasts three times
longer than the HERA research missions,” Contractor said.
Antarctica is even a step further. DeChurch added, “The advantage of
Antarctica is that it is much longer than either of the other two analogs. It
is more real in a sense: there is real work and danger; you’re not going to be
rescued quickly; and sensory deprivation is experienced. Everything outside is
white and boring, and you are always with the same people.”
Analogs help provide NASA
with data about strengths, limitations and the validity of planned human
exploration operations. Research in analogs is one more piece of the puzzle in
determining how the human body and mind, which were built for Earth, will one
day be able to live and thrive off our planet.
NASA's Human Research Program (HRP) is dedicated to
discovering the best methods and technologies to support safe, productive human
space travel. HRP enables space exploration by reducing the risks to astronaut
health and performance using ground research facilities, the International Space
Station and analog environments. This leads to the development and delivery of
an exploration biomedical program focused on: informing human health,
performance and habitability standards; the development of countermeasures and
risk-mitigation solutions; and advanced habitability and medical-support
technologies. HRP supports innovative, scientific human research by funding
more than 300 research grants to respected universities, hospitals and NASA
centers to over 200 researchers in more than 30 states.
The Larsen Ice Shelf in Antarctica as viewed from NASA’s DC-8 aircraft. Antarctica is sometime called “White Mars” because of its desolation and extreme environment, where temperatures rarely get over zero degrees Fahrenheit and the sun disappears for four months of every year. Image Credit: NASA/Armstrong