Going to Mars? What We Learn from It

 By Shlomo Maital  

    The trip to Mars will take about seven months and about 300 million miles (480 million kilometers). One day a team of astronauts will make the journey.   On the way, they will be confined in close quarters for over 200 days.  They will argue.  They may face crises.  They will have to resolve them on their own… Even though radio waves travel at the speed of light, it can take over 20 minutes for a message to travel from Mars, and the same time to return.  Mission control can’t be much help.  The Mars team is on their own.

     How will they get along? How will they resolve disagreements?  A research project is underway in Texas, where teams are subjected to “going-to-Mars” conditions and their behaivor is studied.  Here is how The Economist describes the results, in their special Christmas edition.   I think we can learn a lot  on Earth from the Mars experiment, about how to manage our teams and our work in teams: 

     Inside Building 220 at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas, is a structure three storeys high and 14 metres long, composed of two standing cylinders connected by a third lying on its side. Called the Human Exploration Research Analogue (hera), it is a laboratory in which crews perform mock space missions of a few days to a few months. They are confined to the laboratory, eat only space food and follow a minute-by-minute itinerary of tasks and exercise. Monitored by cameras and microphones night and day, they are routinely prodded, physiologically and psychologically. Vibrations, sound effects and communication delays with a mock mission control add to the realism, and the stress. Dr Contractor calls hera the “ultimate human Petri dish”.   With no one to complain to about their colleagues, teams in hera work, live, eat and solve problems together. In one experiment, four-member crews participated in mock 30-day missions to an asteroid called Geographos, where they collected rock samples and simulated spacewalks. They faced communications delays with Earth of up to five minutes each way, and at one point underwent 24 hours of sleep deprivation.

    What did NASA learn from these experiments?

       Conflict within a team is not always a bad thing. Happy teams are not necessarily the most productive. “If we’re going to draw an arrow of causality, it’s stronger to reword the statement as ‘a productive team is a happy team’,” says Leslie DeChurch, a psychologist at Northwestern University. “Nothing builds cohesion in a team like excellence.”  Avoiding conflict can discourage the creative friction that can generate new or better ideas. Conflict associated with tasks is different from that associated with personalities. Conflict over ideas can be helpful. But when conflicts get personal, things can get ugly.    

 I think this conclusion – creative friction can be highly productive – applies to couples as well.  It may not be ideal if you never argue.  Argue – and then move on.   Intel made this into a winning value.  Disagree – and commit.    Self-efficacy is powerful.  If you feel you are productive, together, then you will be even more so facing future challenges. 

 Oh –- and one more thing.  Laugh together.  It’s very important:

Perhaps the most important insight NASA has gleaned from studying team dynamics—in space and on Earth—is the preciousness of one trait in particular: a sense of humor. Studies of crews overwintering at the South Pole show that a confined group needs people to fulfil various roles, including leader, storyteller, and social secretary. But the most important task by far is that of the clown, a person who is funny and also wise enough to understand each member of the group and defuse tensions. Laughter, as much as courage, will sustain astronauts on their long quest to Mars.

  • The Economist: HOW TO PREVENT CONFLICT ON THE WAY TO MARS. Missions to the red planet will need a new breed of astronaut. DEC 18TH 2021