Mind & Body

To Make Space Travel Successful, Scientists Will Have to Solve for Roommate Drama

Quick, think of the worst roommate you ever had. It's probably not hard. There's something about having to share a space with somebody that can magnify their every quirk and habit into a nails-on-the-chalkboard level of annoyance. At least when you lived with them, you could always take a walk or escape to your local coffee shop. Imagine living with that person when you're stuck together several million miles away from your home planet. That's what researchers are doing in order to make close-quarters living a bit more livable.

Related: Should We Colonize Venus Instead of Mars?

It's Nutellaughing Matter

Just because they're astronauts doesn't mean they're immune to roomie drama. Once, in a simulated long-duration space exploration (LDSE) mission, a team nearly tore itself to pieces over a disappearing Nutella supply. There was only so much to go around over the course of several months, and one member of the team was taking more than their fair share without admitting to their wrongdoing. As far as we know, there isn't a Costco selling industrial-sized vats of the stuff between here and Mars, so we definitely understand where the rest of the team was coming from. The question is, how can you avoid problems like that on a real-life space voyage?

To find an answer to that question, a team of psychologists released a report in 2015 detailing exactly what kinds of demands a team in space might face. According to contributing author Steve Kozlowski, when a small group is placed in isolation, there doesn't even need to be an inciting incident or a specific grievance for team dynamics to break down. Kozlowski says that of the three six-plus month missions that we have data on, all broke down at some point. Somewhere between the four- and seven-month mark, the team became desynchronized and broke into two or three smaller subgroups. That's trouble because just the trip to Mars will take about nine months. The trip back might take even longer, and that's before you account for the actual time spent on the planet's surface.

The Source of Stress

In a 2007 study, another team of researchers developed wearable technology designed to see what, exactly, caused stress in working environments. The badges that participants wore tracked biological signs of stress and noted when their wearers were in physical proximity to each other. Using this data, along with records of the participants' email communication and self-reports, the researchers were able to find out that, yes, the most stressful part of the workday is when you talk to other people.

Paradoxically, the problem isn't just that you're dealing with people too much. It's also that you aren't dealing with enough people. In one eye-opening study from the 1981 International Biomedical Expedition to the Antarctic, the team of 12 Antarctic researchers suffered greatly from a nearly complete team breakdown thanks to their isolation. That makes some sense. Sure, it might be stressful to have to interact with coworkers on a regular basis, but how much more stressful is it when it's always the same coworkers, with no chance of seeking an outside perspective? It all adds up to the fact that teamwork is one of the biggest problems we need to solve for before humanity makes a successful trip to Mars.

Working Well Together

As it turns out, the teams that work best together don't necessarily follow a particular recipe or set of guidelines for effective cooperation. In other words, there's no one right way to build a team. But that doesn't mean there aren't a few best practices that any space-faring team should take into consideration.

According to a 2013 meta-analysis, a 15-minute debrief — or "after-action review" — can mean the difference between a mediocre team and one that's destined for the stars. You've got to do these post-project meetings correctly, though. Participants must be actively engaged instead of just passively listening, and everyone involved must be clear that the goal is to improve the process, and not to judge or punish anyone in particular. Furthermore, the debriefs should focus on specific events whenever possible, and finally, they should take in data from multiple information sources. It's not about learning how the team leader thought the exercise went; it's about hearing how the exercise went from all perspectives. If you can get a team that's all-in for that sort of overview, you're well on your way towards an LDSE mission you can be proud of, Nutella or no.

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You don't need to work for NASA to appreciate the value of teamwork. "The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork" by John Maxwell can bring some of these lessons to your team at the office — and it's free with your trial membership to Audible. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas December 4, 2018

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