Mission for Mars: Researcher works with NASA to ready astronauts for future space voyages

Mars Valles Marineris Hemisphere Enhanced. Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech
Mars Valles Marineris Hemisphere Enhanced. Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech

In a dark theater on the opening weekend of “The Martian,” Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine assistant professor Deborah DiazGranados, Ph.D., followed the interactions among the crew of the Ares III with a discerning eye, noticing their moments of playful banter and observing how they maintained morale.

DiazGranados enjoyed the box office hit for the special effects and shirtless Matt Damon just as much as her fellow moviegoers, but she had other reasons to relate to the film. The organizational psychologist has spent the past few months researching what the needs of a NASA team may be on a mission to Mars. Specifically, she has been investigating how the team will maintain their well-being and their performance on such a long, remote mission.

“It puts in perspective what the teams go through when they are up in space,” DiazGranados said of the science-fiction film, which chronicles a space botanist’s efforts to return to Earth after being stranded on the red planet. “It’s stressful, and the crew builds a close-knit team because that’s all they have.”

It puts in perspective what the teams go through when they are up in space.

DiazGranados’ research focuses on teamwork and the implications of leadership on work and performance. Since joining VCU in the fall of 2011, she has taught a leadership and communication course to biostatistician Ph.D. students and a team science course to M.D.-Ph.D. students. Currently, she is teaching a foundation of interprofessional practice course to students from all five VCU health sciences schools, instructing the students on how to use an interprofessional team-based approach to examine health care delivery.

It was this expertise in teamwork that attracted NASA to working with DiazGranados. The VCU professor is conducting the research with Jessica L. Wildman, Ph.D., assistant professor in the School of Psychology at the Florida Institute of Technology, and Michael Curtis, Ph.D., a local human factors consultant and adjunct psychology professor at VCU, who is also her husband. “The long-duration space missions are definitely going to have added stress, which NASA is preparing for,” DiazGranados said.

The mission to Mars will be a three-year, 70-million mile space voyage, and design work has already begun on the space capsule Orion, which is estimated to have less than 320 cubic feet of habitable space and will be capable of handling two to six crew members. That is a long time to be enclosed in a small space with co-workers and NASA is already making preparations to ensure that the crew members get along throughout the journey, which is estimated to embark in the 2030s.

One major issue that NASA must navigate is the fact that, because of the distance from Earth that the astronauts are going to be traveling, there could be 20-minute delays from when a communication is sent to or from ground control to when it is received, so crew members won’t be able to rely on ground control for instructions like they have in the past.

“Since the teams that are going to be on the long-duration space missions are likely to go with less connectivity and less communication with ground control, we really wanted to see how these individuals relied on ground control to maintain their well-being and performance,” she said.

In addition to conducting a thorough literature review to understand the concept of team self-maintenance, DiazGranados and her research partners interviewed several astronauts and flight directors about the challenges they experienced as a team and any needs that only ground control could meet.

Another challenge that NASA anticipates is the issue of maintaining motivation throughout the course of the three-year mission. On these expeditions, crew members will be engaging in consistent longitudinal experiments, often collecting data for other scientists’ research.

“Astronauts are doing a lot of this repetitive science and data gathering, so it’s important to ensure that they are able to find meaning in what they are doing rather than just following the instructions,” DiazGranados said.

The research team concluded that meaningful work is a critical issue around well-being and that the antidote for disengagement at work is finding meaning in the tasks you are charged to complete. This lesson, DiazGranados said, is just as important on solid ground as it is in space.

“The issue of engaging in team self-maintenance can be applied to everyday life,” DiazGranados said. “I can definitely see parallels.”

This artist concept depicts NASA’s Space Launch System, which will be the most powerful rocket ever built. It is designed to boost the agency’s Orion spacecraft on deep space missions, including to an asteroid and, ultimately, to Mars. Image by NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center
This artist concept depicts NASA’s Space Launch System, which will be the most powerful rocket ever built. It is designed to boost the agency’s Orion spacecraft on deep space missions, including to an asteroid and, ultimately, to Mars. Image by NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center

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Deborah DiazGranados, Ph.D.
Deborah DiazGranados, Ph.D.