12 October 2000
Spoilt In Space
by Kate Melville
American astronauts and mission control personnel who participated in missions to the Mir space station tended to be less happy and less satisfied with their working conditions than their Russian counterparts, according to a study conducted by University of California, San Francisco researchers at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center (SFVAMC). For US crewmembers, the reason for this may have been that they were a minority on crews composed of two Russians and one American, the researchers said.
They also found that ground personnel scored lower than flight crews on surveys of emotional health, according to a study presented this month at the 51st International Astronautical Congress in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and published in the journal: Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine.
The study suggests several steps NASA could take to help boost morale and reduce interpersonal conflict on future long-term missions, said first author Nick Kanas, MD, SFVAMC associate chief of the mental health service, and a UCSF professor of psychiatry. These steps could be applied almost immediately, Kanas noted, because the first crew to live on the International Space Station will begin its three-month stay this November.
Under a contract with NASA, the researchers gathered data from weekly questionnaire surveys given to 13 crewmembers and 58 mission control personnel during the NASA missions to the Mir space station between 1995 and 1998. These surveys, which were standard psychological research questionnaires, asked the crewmembers to rate their current mood and to agree or disagree with various statements about their work environment and their interactions with the rest of the crew, Kanas said. The researchers averaged the results and used statistical tools to compare scores of Americans with Russians, and scores of flight crew with ground personnel.
In general, Americans were less satisfied with their group interactions and work environments than Russians - they reported less support and direction from their leaders, more work pressure, less opportunity for self-discovery, and less physical comfort, Kanas said. The most likely explanation, he explained, is that the astronauts were nearly always in a three-person crew with two Russians, one of whom was always the commander. "This creates a potential imbalance. The commander was always a Russian; the language used was always Russian; and operational control of the Mir space station was in Russian hands," he said. With the American astronauts in such an isolated minority, Kanas said it is understandable that they might feel socially isolated and less happy with their work environment.
Differences between Russian and American work styles could also explain why Americans felt they were not working as effectively with the Russians, Kanas said. "Whereas Russians depend more on asking for advice from experts on the ground, Americans are more used to following procedures and rely more on manuals and protocols," he said.
Furthermore, Kanas said, the work roles for American astronauts on Mir may not have been as clearly defined, so they may have felt frustrated, especially during times of crisis or when vital on-board equipment broke down.
For the first time ever, Kanas and his colleagues performed psychosocial profiles of workers at mission control to compare them to the space flight crew. They found that the ground personnel reported greater levels of tension, fatigue, confusion, and overall negative feelings than the astronauts and cosmonauts. However, Kanas noted that when these same tests are taken by workers in other (non-NASA) jobs, their scores are worse than those for astronauts or mission control personnel. Kanas suggested that people who work on space missions may suppress or under-report their emotional responses, or may deal with their problems in a less emotional way than the average worker.
Kanas suggests that working in space is, in some ways, more rewarding than working on the ground, and this may have boosted the flight crew scores above those for the ground crew or for average workers. "The space flight crews were fulfilling a dream in many cases and doing what they most wanted to do in life," he said.
Furthermore, astronauts may have been transferring their negative emotions to the ground crew. They may have recognized that getting angry at their fellow crewmembers might endanger the mission, Kanas said, so instead, they directed their anger at the next most available group - mission control. "This is a phenomenon known as displacement, in which people who cannot deal with tension in a small group mis-direct their feelings outside the group," he said. Statistical analyses of the data supported this explanation. Kanas made several recommendations to NASA to help improve the emotional and psychological environment for both space flight crew and mission control workers.
Sending more than three crew members into space together, and ensuring that one member was not different from the others in terms of language and culture, should help prevent feelings of isolation and potential scapegoating of that member by the majority, he said. "A three-person crew is an unstable number psychosocially, especially when one is obviously in the minority," he said.
Unfortunately, Kanas noted, three-man crews are likely to be the norm, at least for the early missions of the International Space Station. The station's Soyuz escape pod can hold only three people. Until the crews are expanded later on, Kanas suggests that the leadership role might be rotated among the three crewmembers.
The crewmembers chosen for these missions should fit within certain boundaries, Kanas recommended. "It's also important to choose astronauts who are used to dealing with people from other cultures and are good at dealing with other people in general," he said. "And, it's important to select a commander who can address not only the tasks of the mission, but also the emotional needs of the crewmembers."
NASA also should educate astronauts about the psychological issues they might encounter during a long mission, and suggest ways to deal with these problems. Also, Kanas recommended pre-flight team-building exercises that include both the astronauts and ground personnel, to help develop trust and cohesion among them before the mission, and to identify any interpersonal problems.
Once the mission begins, Kanas said, it's important that astronauts be trained to understand the interpersonal climate of the mission, so that potential problems can be spotted before they get out of hand. NASA should encourage regular contact between astronauts and their families, and possibly with trained counselors; and they should consider sending surprise gifts from earth to help improve morale, he said. For especially long missions, such as a manned trip to Mars, "the odds of an extreme psychiatric event of some kind are increased, and they might want to have someone on board who had been trained as a counselor," he said.
Readjusting to life on earth can be almost as difficult as the mission itself, Kanas said. He suggested that astronauts and their families should be briefed on some of the potential problems -- the returning astronaut may feel out of place after so much time away, or the experience of space travel may have changed some of his attitudes. "It's very important to brief people on the stresses involved in the re-entry process," he said.
Kanas has been studying small group behavior and the psychology of space travel and other isolating environments for more than 30 years.