Breaking the ice: How astronauts overcome their differences aboard the ISS

Think getting along with people that are nothing like you is hard? Here’s how astronauts do it, 254 miles above Earth on the ISS.

Chris Hadfield: High above our heads is the International Space Station. It’s an amazing, complex thing—the most complicated thing we’ve ever built in space, one of the most complex international projects ever conceived and ever completed. But the keyword of that is international. It is a place built by people from all around the planet, 15 different countries.

And that just sounds sort of theoretical, until you start thinking: different languages, different units measurement systems—is it inches or is it meters? Different electrical systems—is it 220, is it 110, is positive ground, is it negative ground? But the most complex problem to deal with, often, is just people who have come from a wildly different cultural background, a completely different sense of what is normal.

What do you do on a Friday night? What does “yes” mean? What does “uh-huh” mean? What is the day of worship? When do you celebrate a holiday? How do you treat your spouse or your children? How do you treat each other? What is the hierarchy of command? All of those things seem completely clear to you, but you were raised in a specific culture that is actually shared by no one else.

If you have brothers or sisters, ask your brother and sister in detail about some stuff and they will disagree with you. They have a different culture than you do, so imagine if the people that you’re flying a spaceship with come from a wildly different part of the world, trying to find a way to share a sense of purpose so that you can overcome the natural barriers of a difference of culture to do something really difficult—that’s one of the biggest tasks that an astronaut faces.

You can start by just by learning language. It’s obvious if it’s as discrete as learning English or learning Russian or learning Japanese, that’s a clearly defined language, but have someone from Louisiana talk to someone from Brooklyn; they both speak English but the language is very different.

And if you want to speak clearly and communicate with that person you have to recognize that the culture with which they interpret the world is absolutely necessary for you to understand if you want to clearly communicate with them.

And for me the only real measure of clear communication and successful communication is a change of behavior of the listener. If all they did was go “uh-huh,” then you have no understanding of whether they actually comprehended and internalized what it was you were trying to communicate to them.

But if you can see that their actions now reflect a different idea, then you can measure whether what you were intending actually got communicated across, then the loop is complete and you’ve successfully crossed whatever cultural barrier was there. And so that requires a lot of extra effort.

Learning to speak the language, learning to express yourself in a way that is meaningful with the person you’re talking to, and then doing it on a frequent enough basis to be able to see that your message got through and see that that person is doing what it was that you were talking to them about and seeing a change of behavior so that you know for sure that the two of you are on the same page of this new thing that you’re doing. It’s complex. It’s not natural. It’s difficult, but it’s necessary.

And the higher the stakes are—if you’re doing something that is life or death or doing something that has a big financial consequence, then the necessity to communicate effectively and clearly just continues to skyrocket, it continues to go up, and it really puts more pressure on your own shoulders to learn to be a good communicator, but also learn to be as a sensitive and aware as you possibly can of the people that you’re speaking with. Try to overcome all of those natural barriers, try to accomplish something together, no matter where you’re from.

Look up—you can see the greatest feat of human cooperation orbiting 254 miles above Earth. As commander of Expedition 35 aboard the International Space Station (ISS), Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield understands the difficulty of cultural barriers in team work, and the life or death necessity of learning to communicate across those divides. The ISS is a joint project between five space agencies, built by people from 15 different nations—and each of them has a different take on what is "normal". Hadfield explains the scale of cultural differences aboard the spaceship: "What do you do on a Friday night? What does "yes" mean? What does "uh-huh" mean? What is the day of worship? When do you celebrate a holiday? How do you treat your spouse or your children? How do you treat each other? What is the hierarchy of command? All of those things seem completely clear to you, but you were raised in a specific culture that is actually shared by no one else." Here, Hadfield explains his strategy for genuine listening and communication. Whether it's money, reputation, or your life that's at stake, being sensitive and aware of people's differences helps you accomplish something together—no matter where you’re from. Amway believes that ​diversity and inclusion ​are ​essential ​to the ​growth ​and ​prosperity ​of ​today’s ​companies. When woven ​into ​every ​aspect ​of ​the talent ​life ​cycle, companies committed to diversity and inclusion are ​the ​best ​equipped ​to ​innovate, ​improve ​brand image ​and ​drive ​performance. Chris Hadfield features in the new docuseries One Strange Rock and is the author of An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything


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Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
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New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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