Dorothy Carter is an industrial/organizational psychologist headquartered at the University of Georgia, and she is involved in a project studying how well NASA personnel—astronauts, mission control and other staff, will get along with each other during a mission of long duration, such as the two and a half year journey from Earth to Mars.
The astronauts themselves would have to live in close quarters with little of anything resembling normal social stimulation. When things get a little tense, say, after repeated losses in a poker game (I see the green chip floating around the spacecraft and raise you one?) —there’s no stepping outside for a smoke. Likewise, there’s no way to take a constitutional around the block to cool off after a particularly steamy night of arguing about whether Netflix or Amazon Space serves up the best fare.
Carter and her team want to know what concerns might arise as a result of competition and leadership hierarchies. She wants to know the ins and outs of how leadership, cooperation and cohesion are affected by the unique space environment.
Psychologists have been studying team dynamics since before I was born, and frankly, being trapped on a spaceship with nowhere to go, little to distract you, and coping with high-achieving, competitive, leadership hungry people smells a lot to me like most jobs in which I have worked, and a lot like many of the marriages I have encountered in my psychotherapy practice.
Sailors and submariners have long been struggling with the dynamics of team functioning and intimacy in confined places over large stretches of time. In the halls of academia, this research is often designated as ICE research, a neat acronym for “isolated, confined environments,” not to be confused with the brutes who come to take away the people who pick your strawberries, prepare your breakfast at the local diner and clean up after you.
Like most psychosocial research, what we know from studying ICE is fairly common sense. Living in small spaces such as space ships for prolonged periods results in chronic, cumulative stress. The key word is cumulative, because distress seems to accumulate over time, which is why frequent trips to the country dacha sans screen-time can be damn good medicine.
The problem of confinement is partly one of density. The more people who are placed together in a small space, the less control any one of them has over personal privacy. While privacy may not be a fundamental need, arguably, control over one’s privacy is. Distress does not necessarily result from being in a particularly demanding situation, but instead results from the lack of control over those situations. In ICEs, violations of interpersonal distance, territorial desires, and privacy are common, and the inability to control those violations can lead to a lack of peace of mind, depression, and a host of bad things.
I find the cross-cultural components of ICY situations particularly compelling. Different cultures maintain different norms regarding personal space. You should have seen the terror in my little kids’ eyes when greeted up close and personal by the Armenian staff at an agency where I once worked; as the staff lovingly invaded my son’s personal space his terror level went to DEFCON five. Cultural differences such as the meaning of eye contact and posture confound all sorts of things, and that is likely going to be magnified in isolated and confined spaces.
Much of the research that exists, understandably, has occurred in analogue settings, such as those created by Carter in her labs in Georgia. It is difficult, however, to really emulate a situation such as that imposed by a nearly 3-year journey to Mars and back. Getting the research through the institutional review board is a rather immense challenge, one that pales, however, to that of emulating a micro-gravity environment. There are ways it can be done, at least on a short-term basis, and there’s some interesting research on its effects. It turns out that many of the generalizations made about human interaction in ICE conditions are turned topsy-turvy in a microgravity environment.
While Carter’s research revolves primarily around leadership and human interaction in ICE environments, there’s so much more to it. Personality variables, social support, monotony and boredom, exercise effects, and the availability of Netflix all interact in order to determine the best way to assure that placing several people together in a confined environment over a long period of time will not end in a bloodbath or existential melancholy similar to that of caged animals in a zoo. Soon, I imagine, as humans invade the extraterrestrial environment in order to go beyond where no woman has gone before, we will begin to know.