Crew Selection and Space Psychology
Because the nature of space flight will change in the future due to extended journeys and larger numbers of people in space stations, new factors will influence crew selection and training. These include: the inclusion of women and professionals from different disciplines and nations. Because of the lengthening of space missions, behavioral and social scientists must plan carefully as the consequences of poor social planning in space missions can be as severe as those of poor engineering.
In the first ten years of the U.S. space program, space missions had no more than three individuals, were exclusively male, and were drawn from the ranks of test pilots or scientists with pilot experience. In the future, missions may be mixed ethnically, culturally, and may also include women. Individuals may not be exclusively pilots, and extended missions may need professionals from other fields of expertise, such as doctors, engineers, or specialists for experimentation and research. But no matter how the nature of missions change, there are certain criteria for crew selection that will remain: flight experience in a high-performance aircraft, ability to function effectively under stress, and the achievement of a certain level of physical fitness.
The field of psychology has analyzed extensively the group setting and interpersonal dynamics. Because of the amount of time that members of a mission spend in space with limited communication from Earth, small changes in the environment, and no direct access to different individuals, psychology should be interrelated with concerns on the dynamics of human emotion and individual motivation and productivity in spaceflight. Psychology also studies how an individual's environment affects performance. Psychological problems that can strike long-duration astronauts include anxiety, emotional hypersensitivity, insomnia, irritability, and depression. Because of this, attention should be given to providing a variety during the trip; simple things such as meals, sleep, and recreation can influence performance and morale to a great extent.
All candidates for the space mission must undergo a series of psychiatric evaluations that seek to: 1) detect any personality disorders, 2) assess the capacity of the individual to function productively on assigned roles, 3) single out individuals who have motivations and personalities that allow them to perform effectively under the stress of spaceflight.
Training should also be modified to focus attention on building person-to-person relationships that increase communications and decrease psycho-physiological stress. Training in social adaptation skills should address: 1) social sensitivity, especially in environments where there can be a mix of education social classes, cultures, and views, 2) communication skills to articulate anxieties and problems to avoid mounting tensions, and 3) group performance, including leadership skills and facilitating group compromise.
The prospect of crew heterogeneity and significantly longer assignments will affect the astronaut selection process. The psychological criteria of the selection process should also measure an individual's capacity to adapt to a new physical environment for extended periods of time while simultaneously maintaining effective performance. Fortunately, humans tend to be very adaptive and flexible psychologically. However, astronauts must be kept psychologically as well as physically sound during their journey. Candidates should be tested in their ability to respond quickly to emergencies even after performing repetitive and monotonous tasks. Extended missions also require that the candidate be able to work effectively and harmoniously with co-workers in what can be a very stressful environment. In recent years the questions of the use of hypnosis as a tool to reduce personal problems during spaceflight has been raised.
From the view of individual crew members, long-duration missions may bring about stress, psychological depression, and diminished performance. With a heterogeneous group, the crew may have different national origins, native languages, racial characteristics, or moral and religious belief systems. It has yet to be decided if these differences will cause friction in this isolated environment, or create a diversity that could be psychologically beneficial. There is a general tendency for groups facing perilous environments to organize themselves hierarchically, mainly because it strengthens their capacity to respond to emergencies and crises. Because command is centralized, the social system will hold together the coordination of action that will be attainable even under stress. In general, this system can provide the high level of personal organization (by focusing resources and establishing a system of communication and control) needed in the stressful environments of extended space travel.
Conflict in social systems can emerge in different forms. Typical forms include argumentation, social "friction", interpersonal disliking, attitudes of distrust, passive refusal to cooperate, and (when the conflict becomes severe) physical violence. However, there has been very little evidence of serious conflict or disagreement between the crew members in past missions. Nevertheless, to avoid possible conflict, task-interdependence and cross-links among individuals should be encouraged to promote cooperative contact. More often, there were disagreements between the space crew and Mission Control over task overloads or regulations of crew activities imposed by Mission Control.
When people are under stress, some forms of communication and negotiation are more effective than others. These might include: reflective listening, assertion skills, issue control, structure exchange regarding points of difference, and collaborative problem solving. Whether these techniques will work in a cross-cultural context is an open issue.
Our Mars Mission will deal with no less than three and no more than five people. Because of a small group, focus of cooperation between the members will be on interpersonal compatibility rather than group/sub-group dynamics. And thus in order to increase the degree of compatibility between crew members, it seems a wise choice to choose a crew with a similar cultural, national, and racial background.