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Why It's Hard to Send Humans to Mars


by Clif Boutelle, SIOP Public Relations

NASA Astronaut Stan Love to Discuss Teams and Space Travel at SIOP Annual Conference

In the not-too-distant future, a team of astronauts will leave Earth and embark on an interplanetary mission to explore Mars. The mission crew will endure isolation, confinement, and extreme conditions for nearly three years.

One person very much involved in the planning, preparation, and challenges NASA faces in its quest for human exploration of the red planet is astronaut Dr. Stanley Love, a veteran of space flights and walks and current crew representative for Exploration Systems. He continues to help plan for human exploration of asteroids, the moon, and Mars.

Love will discuss the challenges facing a manned landing on Mars during his closing keynote address, “Why It's Hard to Send Humans to Mars,” at the 32nd Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) to be held in Orlando April 27-29. His presentation will begin at 4:30 p.m. April 29 in the Pacific BC Ballroom of the Walt Disney World Dolphin Hotel.

The three-day SIOP conference is expected to bring together more than 4,500 workplace psychologists from around the globe and will feature presentations on the latest scientific research and practice. The conference will include more than 900 symposia, forums, panel presentations, posters, and other sessions focusing on current issues and trends in the workplace.

A news conference featuring Love and SIOP members Dr. Wendy Bedwell of the University of South Florida and Dr. Brandon Vessey, Deputy Element Scientist for Flight Analogs at the Johnson Space Center in Houston will take place before the closing plenary address, at 2 p.m. April 29 in Oceanic 4 at the Dolphin hotel. Bedwell is a co-principle investigator on a grant from NASA aimed at understanding crew dynamics as related to team composition.

When human explorers reached the Moon more than 40 years ago, at the time it seemed like we might get to Mars soon after. Why haven't we done it yet?

During his address, Love will explore this complicated but fascinating question, and detail how it encompasses the major challenges of space flight: the need to travel at huge speeds, the limits of how well chemical rocket engines can perform, and the need for every part of the mission to go perfectly. Mastering all of that can get us to the Moon. Going to Mars, a thousand times further than the Moon, is more challenging still.

“To go to Mars, we must find ways to keep humans healthy for long periods without gravity or protection from radiation, build spaceship components that can run for years without failing, and create rockets big enough to carry the astronauts, their equipment, and many months' worth of supplies all the way to another planet and back,” Love explained. “These are very tough problems, but understanding them is the first step toward solving them.”

One major challenge to building a team for a long duration space mission is choosing a compatible crew.

“These days, astronauts are selected in part for how well they maintain an even keel and get along with others under stressful conditions,” Love said.

Once chosen, astronauts spend hours and hours training intensively in leadership and teamwork in a variety of situations, including the office, aircraft cockpits, spacecraft simulators, two-person spacewalking teams, wilderness expeditions, and more until working well together under stressful conditions becomes second nature, he explained.

Love said the single greatest challenge humans face in space exploration is systems failure, which has been the cause of past catastrophes.

“But even if the spacecraft works perfectly, humans in space face physiological and psychological effects as well,” he explained. “Your sense of balance must re-wire itself to compensate for the absence of gravity, which takes several days. Being in microgravity causes muscles and bones to lose mass and strength. To counteract those effects, astronauts spend two and half hours a day exercising. When we send astronauts to Mars, where communication with Earth will be limited—and completely absent for a couple of weeks every couple of years—it'll be a huge challenge to put the incredible smarts and talent of the control center into the heads of a few astronauts and the memories of the computers they'll take with them.”

I-O psychologists are very much interested in the psychological and behavioral elements of future missions to Mars and have been conducting research on critical team factors vital to long-distance space exploration missions. Emerging areas of interest for spaceflight team research include team leadership, team composition, and team processes.

The SIOP conference has several sessions on how I-O psychology is increasingly involved in research and practice related to human space exploration, including team dynamics, with a presentation entitled “Long Duration Space Exploration: Does Team Cohesion Matter?”

I-O psychologists are also interested in building better teams on Earth and beyond. While the focus of Love’s address is astronauts during space flights, mission success is greatly dependent upon teamwork, he said. When problems arise during space missions, most of the solutions come from flight control teams in Mission Control.

“In turn, those teams rely on the support of many dedicated engineers who work outside the control center,” he said. “The classic example is the jury-rigged carbon dioxide removal system that saved the lives of the Apollo 13 astronauts. That idea, and the instructions for how to execute it, came from Mission Control, and the astronauts put it together.”

Love says there are some lessons from long duration space flights that can be instructional for people on Earth.

“The Earth is a very big ship with a very big crew, but many of the lessons of space flight nevertheless apply,” he said. “The simple act of paying attention to human interactions helps everyone improve them. So does sharing resources fairly, working together toward a common goal, knowing when to think independently and when to think cooperatively, and remaining considerate of others even when under stress. Imagine the difference in the world's news headlines if everyone behaved that way!”

Love, a native of Oregon, was selected as a NASA astronaut in 1998 and has been with the space agency since. He completed his first flight to the International Space Station in 2008 logging more than 306 hours in space, including two space walks. Love became fascinated with science and space at an early age and it became his goal to pursue a career in space science or engineering.

“Becoming an astronaut was the best imaginable match for my lifelong passions,” he said. “The best thing about the job is how many different skills it develops and demands, everything from public speaking to flying airplanes to turning wrenches. No two days are alike, and it never gets boring.”

SIOP Sessions to Note:

  • I-O Psychology and the Space Program” at 10:30 a.m. Thursday (April 27) in Asia 3 room.
  • Studying the Dynamics of Team Dynamics” at 1:30 p.m. Thursday (April 27) in the Americas Seminar. This symposium will include a presentation by Wendy Bedwell of the University of South Florida and colleagues entitled “Long Duration Space Exploration: Does Crew Cohesion Matter?”
  • Exploring New Frontiers: Building Better Teams on Earth and Beyond” at 10 a.m. Friday (April 28) in N. Hemisphere A3 room. Includes presentations by Northwestern University researchers titled “Crew Recommender for Effective Work in Space;” “Comparing Long Duration Team Dynamics in a Mars Exploration Simulation,” by Michigan State University researchers; and “Examining Team Roles in Spaceflight” by University of Central Florida and Rice University scientists.

News Conference

A news conference on the topic of long-duration space travel featuring Stan Love and SIOP members Dr. Wendy Bedwell, University of South Florida, and Dr. Brandon Vessey, Deputy Element Scientist for Flight Analogs at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, will take place before the SIOP closing plenary address, at 2 p.m. April 29 in Oceanic 4 at the Dolphin hotel. Anyone interested in this topic is welcome to attend, though seating preference will be given to members of the media.

Attendees will hear brief descriptions of the panelists’ work and have the opportunity to ask questions, with optional one-on-one interviews with Dr. Love afterward. For more information, or to arrange a one-on-one interview with Dr. Love, please contact SIOP Communications Specialist Barbara Ruland at bruland@siop.org. 

Get Your Photo Taken with Stan!

SIOP attendees will have an opportunity to get a photo with Dr. Love in his NASA flight jacket in front of a photo of Mars immediately following the news conference. This event is free and open to all conference attendees. The photos will be taken 2:30-3:30pm in the Wi-Fi lounge near the exhibit hall on the first floor of the Dolphin hotel. 

Media Credentials

Reporters wanting to attend Astronaut Love’s plenary presentation or cover specific sessions during the conference can obtain credentials at the SIOP registration desk in the convention foyer on the third floor of Swan and Dolphin Hotel or in advance by contacting the SIOP administrative office at 419-353-0032 and talking to Stephany Below, SIOP Communications Manager or Barbara Ruland, Communications Specialist.

To view an online program of all presentations, go to www.siop.org/programsearch. A printed copy of the conference program can be obtained at the registration desk. It is suggested that reporters wanting to cover a specific session, contact Below or Ruland for assistance.