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University of South Florida Psychology Professor Plays a Key Role in NASA’s Year-long Simulated Trip to Mars

USF researcher says living a full year in a secluded habitat allows crew members to experience a variety of social and psychological challenges they might experience on a three year trip to Mars and back.

TAMPA, Fla. (Aug. 29, 2016) – Emerging from a year of confinement in a habitat constructed to simulate the isolation astronauts will experience on a future trip to Mars, six crew members smiled and waved to cheering friends, family and co-workers Sunday as they exited their solar-powered dome atop Hawaii’s Mauna Loa. 

A University of South Florida psychology professor’s important role analyzing the group will hopefully help lead to success in the first-ever human mission to the “Red Planet.” 

The year of seclusion on a mock “Mars” was the fourth such mission and the longest to date aimed at determining how crew members might deal with rocky red terrain, isolation and each other during a prolonged trip in outer space. In 2014 NASA awarded $1.2 million to the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) program to study the human factors that contribute to astronaut crew function and performance during long space travels such as those anticipated for a manned mission to Mars. The University of Hawaii is leading the study, which includes USF professor Dr. Wendy Bedwell’s involvement studying the team’s cohesion.

“Each of the missions has been focused on learning about the social, behavioral and cognitive factors that affect team performance over time,” said Bedwell, a USF assistant professor of industrial-organizational psychology who serves as a co-investigator on the NASA grant and will debrief the Mission Four crew members upon their exit and analyze data collected during their isolation. “My role is to identify patterns of behavior indicative of cohesion issues among team members to identify potential interventions as early as possible so that the crew maintains cohesion and performance.” 

The HI-SEAS habitat is located 8,000 feet above the Hawaiian surf on the northern slope of Mauna Loa in an abandoned quarry among old lava beds.  The habitat is a dome 36 feet in diameter with a two-story internal structure totaling 13,570 cubic feet. The ground floor area is 993 square feet, including kitchen, dining bathroom, lab and exercise facilities. The second floor area covers 424 square feet and includes six separate staterooms and a half bath.

In the upcoming week, Bedwell will debrief and collect data from the crew. Prior to the year-long mission, researchers measured crew member behavioral, emotional, and social factors and tracked how these might change over the course of the long-duration mission. Data was collected with cameras, body movement trackers and electronic surveys among other methods.

The six-person crew is comprised of scientists from varying disciplines, from astrophysics, to architecture to engineering.  The goal is to be able to predict crew performance in missions of varying length. The trip to Mars and back is estimated to be three years long.  

“Our previous shorter missions helped us understand how cohesion fluctuates over time in teams that are in isolated, confined, extreme (ICE) environments,” explained Bedwell, who made observations about the group over the past year during their regular videotaped debriefings. “I found that the way we tell teams in more traditional work environments to deal with conflict, by being open with their feelings, doesn’t necessarily work for teams living and working in ICE environments. Such teams never have a chance to get away from each other as they are in close quarters 24/7.  Teams in more traditional work environments can experience conflict and then go home and take a break from a teammate; ICE teams cannot.” 

Bedwell’s research interests include team performance, especially adaptive performance and individual and team training. Much of her research is focused on understanding the factors that enable interdisciplinary and/or multicultural teams operating in complex, dynamic environments to effectively adapt. She also considers training effectiveness, with the goal of tying simulation-based and game-based training techniques, tools and components to desired learning outcomes.

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