How to Build a Team That Can Survive on Mars

Last Updated:Sunday, February 18, 2024

What teams on Earth can learn from crew members preparing for missions beyond the Earth-Moon orbit.


Source: CNN

NASA has revealed its Transition Authorization Act of 2017 detailing their plans to leave the Earth-Moon system with the objective of reaching Mars orbit by the 2030s. This act outlines five key phases for reaching Mars.

Currently, we are in phase 0, which will last from now until 2025. By 2020 NASA hopes to be operating within the Lunar vicinity and by the 2030’s - according to NASA - we’ll be Mars-bound baby.

The “Human Space Exploration Phases From ISS to the Surface of Mars” is a document full of badass terms and titles for some pretty badass sci-fi concepts turned non-fiction realities. Names like “cislunar flight testing”, “cislunar validation”, “asteroid redirect-crewed mission”, or a “one-year crewed Mars-class shakedown”.

Besides the cool terminology attached to NASA’s plan there are several important goals to match. As outlined in the Transition Authorization Act, here are some of NASA’s key long-term goals:

1) To expand permanent human presence beyond low-Earth orbit (LEO) and to do so in a manner that involves international, academic, and industry partners

2) To prepare crewed missions for beyond LEO and to enable progress toward the potential of subsequent human exploration

3) To make possible the extension of human presence - including potential future human habitation - on another celestial body

4) To create a thriving space economy in the 21st century

With long-term goals, comes long-term space missions. By anticipating the two-and-a-half to three year return trip to Mars, NASA has to consider preparing both hardy equipment and sturdy teams.

Before starting the first phase, NASA invests in studying what sustains a healthy crew member environment.

Enter the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation facility - or the HI-SEAS project - a NASA-backed project which puts a carefully selected team into a Mars-like habitat for the duration of one year.

simulated mars voyage

Source: Al Jazeera

Simulated Mars voyage provides valuable behavioral psychology information

HIGH-SEAS project discovers the value of team-building exercises in isolated, confined, and extreme environments

The studies at HI-SEAS are a significant part of the preparation for an extended mission to Mars. Six members are selected to live in a Mars-like environment on a vast plain below the summit of Hawaii’s Big Island Mauna Loa, the world’s largest active volcano.

The group selected to be a part of the Mars simulation will most likely never find themselves actually going on crewed missions beyond the Earth-Moon system, so why participate?

As science officer, Samuel Paylor states, “the US space agency will use this data to select individuals and groups with the right mix of traits to best cope with the stress, isolation, and danger for a two-to-three year trip to the [red] planet.”

A more autonomous team required for a mission to Mars

What’s so different about a voyage to Mars?

Well, for starters - the duration.

Because of the timely duration of a voyage to Mars, there would be an expected time delay in Earth communication anywhere from twenty to forty minutes. That means missions require a lot more autonomy from crew members than other crewed missions to date.

As with previous crewed missions (and currently on the ISS) crew members’ daily objectives are planned out to a ‘t’. They are able to speak to doctors, psychologists, friends, and family for support and have a ground support team to aid them in the event that an unexpected situation arises.

To harness this required autonomy, HI-SEAS crew members schedule their own time when not working on NASA research protocols. They monitor and maintain solar panels, water use, composting toilets, etc. They cook, exercise, and work on personal goals.

hi seas project

Source: HI-SEAS

However, it’s not all fun and games.

The HI-SEAS project sets out to see where a breaking point - either individually or as a team - may arise.

Kim Binsted, a computer scientist at the University of Hawaii and the project’s principal investigator, believes this sweet spot (the breaking point) for most HI-SEAS crew members is around eight months to one year.  

Crew members participate in behavior tracking by filling out weekly surveys on mood, activities, physical health, and stress levels. Their discussions before and after excursions are recorded for studies on team task management.

Video games designed to challenge and measure changes in cooperative versus competitive motivations are played on a frequent basis.

The HI-SEAS team even wear special badges that measure variables like how loudly people are speaking, distances between each other, and who initiates and disengages from conversations.
So yeah, there’s no lack of data coming in on team behavior.

Based off of this exceptional amount of detailed data, researchers have made some important discoveries that could apply to even Earthly occupations.

Peter G. Roma, a doctor of Behavior Resources at John Hopkins University School of Medicine and the author of an article on effectiveness of shared social behavioral tasks within the HI-SEAS project, comments on a newly developed software tool called COHESION, which stands for capturing objective human econometric social interactions in organization and networks. Makes you wonder - what came first? The acronym or its compound? Either way, thankfully it breaks down easily.

Basically, COHESION objectively measures dynamic social processes in small groups. A few key examples follow:

  • Cooperation

  • Productivity

  • Fairness

The tool actually outlines an environment that is neither passively social or requiring of competitive activities.

Roma states, “COHESION allows the expression of a wide range of social behaviors while task success is cooperation and fairness in response to uncontrollable environmental stress.”

While COHESION is geared towards extreme isolated environments, its underlying principle applies to even Earthen work environments - “a simple, shared task environment can be enjoyable while defusing tension and increasing positive feelings in data-drive, achievement-oriented teams.”

Understandably, a lot of the HI-SEAS simulation research goes into how to pick crew members for a team.

The people selected for these teams are ‘astronaut-like’, without being too much of adrenalin junkies. Top candidates often have career backgrounds based in complex technological backgrounds - such as, in an operating room or airplane cockpit - where mistakes could cost lives. They are stoic. In other words, more capable than most other humans to be on board this mission - simulation or not.

While most of us will never find ourselves tasked with conducting geological surveys on a Mars-like landscape or maintaining a self-sufficient habitat with our coworkers, we can still take tips from team behavior within the most extreme conditions.

Yes, the members of HI-SEAS are dealing with simulations we will probably never have to experience with our coworkers, yet they also are performing tasks that have real meaning and impact.

Believing that your work can influence change has been proven to show a more efficient team-based work environment.  

hi seas project membersSource: NASA

How to avoid critical disaster by proper team selection

“Just because we’re stuck in a bubble doesn’t mean we can’t cause trouble”

While it’s nothing like Pauly Shore’s 1996 slapstick comedy - research from the HI-SEAS Mars dome simulation continues to help reveal what’s necessary to avoid troubling psychological concerns for crew members.

As Roma states, “a long-duration mission in isolated, confined, and extreme (ICE) environments can lead to social withdrawal and reduced team cohesion, potentially increasing risks to individual and team behavioral health and mission performance.”

Even Mark Shelhamer - a former chief scientist at NASA’s human research program - admits that “psychological issues (‘behavioural health’ in NASA’s terminology) will be a major concern.”  

Yet one of the major ways of counteracting these concerns is by ensuring the proper team selection.

As ex-space shuttle commander Tom Henricks states, superior “teams can mitigate risks and improve outcomes with advanced planning and teamwork.”

The most recent HI-SEAS crew was comprised of team members from various occupations including a doctor, science journalist, fluid physicist, soil scientist, a pilot of planetary probes, and an astrobiology PhD student.

During their quarantine, team members pursued their own research projects while teaching other crew members about their specialities.  

Letting go of being ‘the best of the best’ could actually be the best thing for teams.

A high-functioning team seems to be one that recognizes there are situations where one may require the help of another. To acknowledge that some solutions are outside of one's skillset while simultaneously avoiding codependency.

Henricks believes team spirit and camaraderie are important attributes for avoiding “a lack of trust among team members.” His firsthand experience revealed that the “root of [most] mishaps” was within “complex communications, a beat up staff, paralyzed middle management, a lack of metrics and performance incentives, and a failure to relentlessly focus on critical issues.”

Most of us don’t have to trust our coworkers with our lives, but you very well may rely on them occasionally for the security of your job.

Steve Kozlowski - a professor of organizational psychology at Michigan State University - observes that over time “one can identify the sequence, frequency, duration, and degree of arousal associated with patterns of interactions among team members.”
The goal - whether for a Mars-bound crew or perhaps your average corporate team - is to identify any “departures from normative function” and to help the crew recognize these stressors before they escalate.

Some researchers are less optimistic than others. For example, Konrad Szocik - a cognitive scientist at the University of Information Technology and Management in Poland - argues that regardless of decades of preparation, the first crewed mission to the Red Planet will take a heavy psychological toll.

Szocik is among the many futurists who have long believed there may have to be genetical and/or surgical modification to prepare humans for longtime life on Mars.

In the meantime, scientists explore behavioral economics and organizational psychology to learn more about maintaining a high-functioning and happy team in Cislunar flight.

space satellite

Source: NASA

From Earth to space: keeping teams healthy and happy

Obstacles go beyond budget, keeping astronauts healthy and happy on the journey is key.

As we enter a new formed space race - one that represents competition between NASA, Boeing, and private company SpaceX - the pressure is on for all involved.

Yet one of the major challenges that remains is the task of maintaining astronaut’s mental health on the long voyage. This is why the HI-SEAS isolation experiment has been so essential in preparing humans for a voyage which requires leaving Cislunar space.

Surprisingly, concerns for mental health and wellbeing for any colonizers of Mars - whether citizen or astronauts - is a relatively new concept.

While Elon Musk seems to be racing NASA to the finish line in this contemporary space race, he has not yet specified how humans will survive once they’ve landed on a world with noxious soil and a suffocated atmosphere - let alone the mental or physical health of said humans.

Even NASA has not always been concerned with the mental wellbeing of their astronauts. While the administration has been operating since 1958, it wasn’t until the 1980’s that they began to employ civil servant psychiatrists.

Dr. Gary Beven, currently the fifth psychiatrist to the administration, claims the shift for professional guidance happened only after the Russians started noticing mental deterioration in their cosmonauts after increased mission lengths.

Beven says that a common misconception is a concern or theory that the spaceflight environment may produce dramatic behavioral issues or space-based illness.

Realistically most astronauts’ main problems are rooted in depression or isolation. And most of the time these problems will occur because of “common earth bound issues.”

Beven continues, “placing crews with potential personality conflicts in a small space station environment with few recreational outlets, and then overwork them and/or not provide enough meaningful work to do,” results in serious harmful mental deterioration.

Sound familiar?

Maybe it feels like your own workplace?

How could this situation be repaired?

According to Beven a mentally healthy crew means a properly selected team with “well trained crew members in a relatively large living and working space,” one that gives access to, “adequate sleep, healthy and good tasting food, meaningful work, leisure time, the availability of social and recreational events - music, movies, contact with family and friends, privacy, adequate space, and a supportive ground team.”

Sound a bit like a description of Google HQ?

google hq

Source: Reuters

Equipped with “nap pods”, free meals three times a day, music and game rooms, along with plenty of social and extracurricular space - Google would definitely fit the merits of NASA’s healthy psychology protocols.

It’s not just Google. Companies from all over the world are starting to pay more attention to their workers well being.

From small startups to large corporations companies are installing small luxuries throughout the office to promote excelled team behavior. However even in the most attractive cases - like Expedia’s London office (which offers a remote-controlled bar and up to $14,000 travel allowances for select employees)  - the office perks don’t always represent the whole picture.

As it’s easy to profile the attractiveness of a space, ultimately what contributes to happiness in the workplace is an employee’s work satisfaction - something that is made up of several contributing factors.

A company that puts effort into building a comfortable physical space is likely to invest in other meaningful areas of employee contentment as well.

However, it’s important to note that a company is not solely responsible for an employee’s happiness - the concept is virtually impossible. So even if the proper measures are put into place, the results may not always turn out as hoped.

Beven’s observations point out necessities which he believes are required for happier space travel. However, he also recognizes that outfitting a deep-space mission with the same cushy attributes of the ISS will be a “supreme challenge” to say the least.

For this reason, Beven foresees the necessity of testing potential crew members for “cognitive decline”, believing that an autonomous “suite of countermeasures” should be built into the IT system so each crew member can privately check their status.

These ships would also require “optimal pharmacological agents to treat the development of potential psychiatric symptoms.”

While managers at your average corporate office down on Earth can’t morally provide a grab bag of Prozac, Zoloft, or Valium they can absolutely invest in other Earth-specific layers of comfort - even offer counseling - to track and maintain happy workers for a more optimized team-based environment.

Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen believes the key skills a team of people “trapped in a tin can for six months” should possess are “emotional intelligence, teamwork, and communication.”

Hansen’s tin can may be your shoebox office; either way these skills apply just as much to teams on Earth as they do to those in boundless space.