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I-O on a Mission to Mars

by Stephany Schings, Communications Specialist

SIOP Members Awarded NASA Grant to Study Astronaut Health and Teamwork

Two SIOP members will soon be sending their teamwork research into space.

SIOP Fellow and President-Elect Eduardo Salas and SIOP Member Kimberly Smith-Jentsch, along with their colleague Stephen Fiore, were recently awarded a NASA grant supporting research on the health and teamwork of astronauts during space exploration missions.

The findings of their 3-year, $1.2 million grant will help astronauts traveling to Mars on a mission planned for 2030.

“This is a great indication of how the science of I-O can contribute to national objectives,” said Salas, a psychology professor and the Human Systems Integration Research program director at University of Central Florida’s Institute for Simulation & Training (IST).

The group’s research proposal was one of a dozen selected out of 54 by NASA and the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) according to the University of Central Florida, where the three are currently professors. The group was notified of receiving the grant in early June and will soon begin interviewing astronauts to develop a better understanding of the unique conditions and constraints they go through while on space missions.

“The project is about investigating teamwork issues that are unique to teams that are isolated and together for long periods of time,” Smith-Jentsch said. Smith-Jentsch is an associate professor of industrial and organizational psychology and Stephen Fiore is an assistant professor of cognitive sciences in the Philosophy Department and director of the Cognitive Sciences Laboratory at IST.

“We don’t know a whole lot about teams like that yet,” Smith-Jentsch continued. “So it’s about understanding the issues unique to these astronauts with the ultimate goal being to create tools they can use to self-correct.”

The journeys to and from Mars each take about 18 months, Salas said, so the astronauts will need specific tools to help members of isolated, long-term trips, such as cohesion and teamwork.

“Without cohesion, without teamwork, performance will deteriorate,” Salas explained. “Through these tools and strategies, we hope to minimize errors and help the astronauts accomplish the mission successfully.”

Much of the group’s study will build on prior navy research by Smith-Jentsch and Salas in the area of guided team self-correction, an instructional strategy that “helps team members help themselves” by monitoring their performance and developing ways to work together. The research will also involve creating tools to teach the astronauts debriefing—the process of monitoring yourself and the crew and critiquing yourselves periodically throughout the mission. Smith-Jentsch said she developed this technique while working on team dimensional training with the navy to teach teams out at sea to critique themselves and monitor their psychological health.

“The idea is that they don’t have resources up there; they have each other,” she said. “So we are going to be giving them tools to examine each other and self-examine. We’re going to be teaching them to be aware of the signs and symptoms of stress, for example. Some of the symptoms you may not notice yourself, but the people around you notice. They don’t have all of these experts and coaches right there with them in space. We’re trying to equip them, so they can sort of take care of themselves out there.”

Salas explained how important self-correction is in an isolated situation such as a space mission.

“Imagine if there is conflict, or they cannot self-correct. When the astronauts are out in space, they can’t say, ‘I want to get off the bus,’” he explained. “So they have to be a very cohesive, productive team and be able to recognize problems in themselves and one another, so they can fix them.”

The study will also develop tools for astronauts to monitor their stress levels.
“We train them on what signs to look for and what to pay attention to,” she said. “And teach them strategies, such as if you notice that one of your teammates seems to be losing it, you can adjust your behavior, adjust the way you are speaking to them, or don’t bring up something that will stress them out at the moment.”

Salas and Smith-Jentsch recognized the weight of making sure the astronauts are properly trained to self-correct and manage themselves.

“The fact is that one mistake can be catastrophic,” Smith-Jentsch said. “I’ve worked a lot with aircrews, and thankfully mistakes don’t happen often but when they do they cost millions of dollars and lives, too. If we can give these astronauts tools to prevent a catastrophic event, the consequences are so severe that even preventing one accident would pay for the value of the grant.”

Since going to work at UCF in 1999, Salas has earned more than $20 million in research grants. In 2008, he was named a UCF Pegasus Professor, the university’s top faculty honor recognizing sustained excellence in teaching, research, and service.
Prior to joining the UCF faculty in 2003, Smith-Jentsch led navy research programs on team performance, simulation-based training and assessment, and mentoring. At UCF, she has continued to focus on those areas and has worked on projects funded by more than $4 million from Workforce Florida, the Office of Naval Research, and NASA.