How NASA is using personality psychology to pick astronauts for a Mars journey

A new paper published in the journal American Psychologist shows how NASA is using personality research to learn what makes the best team of astronauts.


The space industry has a good idea of the technological hurdles it has to climb before embarking on a Mars voyage, but what about those which are psychological?

A new paper published in American Psychologist provides an overview of NASA research on the personality traits necessary for being a good astronaut, and shows what the agency still has to learn before sending humans to the red planet.

There’s one insurmountable problem facing researchers: No one has ever attempted a trip to Mars. Sure, we know that the journey would necessarily entail being crammed in a ship much smaller than the International Space Station (ISS) for two to three years with little communication to family or mission control. But intellectualizing those conditions and experiencing them are very different. That’s not to say space agencies haven’t conducted long-term experiments to simulate the conditions, such as HERA at the Johnson Space Center, or HI-SEAS on the top of the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii, where simulations have lasted up to a year.

“It was a bit overwhelming at first,” said Martha Lenio, commander of the  HI-SEAS mission. “We didn’t really know where to look or what to say. Having all these people around is a bit difficult.”

The main limitation of studies like this is the absence of real danger. The participants know that they’ll be evacuated from the experiment if anything goes wrong, a luxury that can’t be afforded to astronauts traveling millions of miles from Earth.


Even the ISS can’t adequately replicate a Mars journey, considering it’s about the size of a four-story house, communication is instantaneous, and the Earth is constantly in sight.

It’s for these reasons NASA is trying to learn more about how it can select astronauts who won’t only be able to endure the journey on a personal level, but also work effectively as part of a team. Using the Big 5 model of personality, researchers have developed a broad model of personality traits that seem to predict success in space.

“The suggested personality profile includes high emotional stability, moderately high to high agreeableness, moderate openness to experience with a range of acceptable scores, a range of acceptable conscientiousness scores that are above a determined minimum value, and a range of low to moderately high extraversion that avoids very high scores,” the authors wrote.

Isolation experiments conducted in the Antarctic also found that “individuals with greater resilience, adaptability, and team orientation used appropriate stress- and problem-coping strategies, allowing them to adapt to changing events, integrate successfully into a group, and function well in a team.”

Interestingly, a good sense of humor is also important.

“Humor, which stems from personality and may be influenced by cultural factors, is often cited as a benefit by spaceflight and analog teams, although sometimes it can cause friction. Crews in HERA and astronauts aboard the ISS report that appropriate affiliative humor is a key factor in crew compatibility, conflict resolution, and coping,” the authors wrote, adding that one astronaut reported in a journal that “humor and joking around continue to be huge assets and quickly defuse any problems.”

Further research needs to be conducted to better understand how space agencies can best build astronauts teams for long-term missions, the authors wrote.

“Monitoring tools with feedback mechanisms and intelligent support approaches (e.g., adaptive training) need to be developed and scientifically validated to provide data-driven technological support for spaceflight teams. These tools will enable high performing teams to succeed in the ICE environment of long-duration space exploration missions.”

 

Tesla introduces new Model 3 at $45,000

The new version's battery has a shorter range and a price $4,000 lower than the previous starting price.

Tesla Model 3 (Photo: Tesla)
Technology & Innovation
  • Tesla's new version of the Model 3 costs $45,000 and can travel 260 miles on one charge.
  • The Model 3 is the best-selling luxury car in the U.S.
  • Tesla still has yet to introduce a fully self-driving car, even though it once offered the capability as an option to be installed at a future date.
Keep reading Show less

Relationship hack: Why class clowns make better partners

Want a happy, satisfying relationship? Psychologists say the best way is to learn to take a joke.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
Sex & Relationships
  • New research looks at how partners' attitudes toward humor affects the overall quality of a relationship.
  • Out of the three basic types of people, people who love to be laughed at made for better partners.
  • Fine-tuning your sense of humor might be the secret to a healthy, happy, and committed relationship.
Keep reading Show less

Number of American parents not vaccinating infants has quadrupled

A measles comeback is not the sort of return our children deserve.

MIAMI, FL - OCTOBER 04: An influenza vaccination is prepared for a patient at the CVS Pharmacy store's MinuteClinic on October 4, 2018 in Miami, Florida. CVS stores will provide flu vaccinations at their MinuteClinic as well as the pharmacy and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics between now and the end of October is the best time to get vaccinated as the flu season begins. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Politics & Current Affairs
  • The percentage of children under 2 years old who haven't received any vaccinations has quadrupled in the last 17 years.
  • In 2016 in Europe there were 5,273 cases of measles. One year later that jumped to 21,315 cases.
  • Discredited doctor Andrew Wakefield's false study linking vaccines and autism still influences parents, two decades later.
Keep reading Show less

42 percent of new cancer patients lose their life savings

A new study delivers the dark financial reality of cancer.

Photo: Ken Treloar / Unsplash
Politics & Current Affairs
  • 62 percent of cancer patients report being in debt due to their treatment.
  • 55 percent accrue at least $10,000 in debt, while 3 percent file for bankruptcy.
  • Cancer costs exceed $80 billion in America each year.
Keep reading Show less

Yes, Mega Millions just passed $1 billion. What does that look like?

It's hard to imagine such a number. But these images will help you try.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Megamillions_tickets.jpg
News/Social

The Mega Millions lottery just passed $1 billion for tonight's drawing.

What does that even look like, when represented by various currencies?

It takes just 6 numbers to win. You can only, however, purchase tickets up until 10:45 ET tonight.

Keep reading Show less
(Opener)
Technology & Innovation
  • A Larry Page-backed company has announced that its flying car will go on sale in 2019.
  • It's called the BlackFly.
  • Not quite the escape from traffic you had in mind, but it's a jaw-dropping start.
Keep reading Show less

Where the water wars of the future will be fought

A new report warns about the increasing likelihood of international conflicts over water.

Abd al-Ibrahim, whose home was destroyed during fighting, as he rests on his trip to supply water to his family at the house they are squatting in the northern Syrian city of Raqa. October 15, 2018. (Photo credit: DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A study finds that serious conflicts over water are going to arise around the globe.
  • The 5 hotspots identified by the paper include areas of the Nile, Ganges-Brahmaputra, Indus, Tigris-Euphrates, and Colorado rivers.
  • It's still possible to change course if we are prepared to address the effects of climate change.
Keep reading Show less
A Star Is Born, Warner Bros Pictures
Surprising Science
  • It has to do with two parts of the brain, both of which are thicker in those with better smell and spacial recognition.
  • Your nose can detect about 1 trillion smells.
  • While your nose isn't a full GPS, it can help you pick out a general direction.
Keep reading Show less