Suzanne Bell’s work is out of this world. With grants from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the associate professor of Industrial and Organizational Psychology is studying team composition for a mission to Mars. Here, she talks about the trajectory of her research and its contribution to long-distance space exploration.

If one is putting together a team to go to Mars, do some universal principles apply—the same as those for any team, in any context—or are the considerations unique?

I’d say the answer is both.

A mission team—like any team, anywhere—needs competent people who work well together. In our models, we assume that astronauts are intelligent, that they’re experts in their technical areas, and that they have at least some teamwork skills.

What’s tricky is how well individuals combine.

A team to Mars will need to cope with an extreme environment. They’ll be isolated and confined—in a space about the size of a studio apartment—for a long time, an estimated 2½ years. When four people live and work in a small space, day after day, certain combinations of personalities, okay in normal life, could become a problem. For example, in a corporate team, a mix of extroverts and introverts can create a balanced give-and-take. But in a mission, a very sociable, talkative person could become irritating and could end up being ostracized.

How is your research addressing these challenges?

In 2013, NASA asked for a literature review and operational assessment of team composition issues for long-distance space exploration. I was able to include students in this project, one part of which was interviewing astronauts, flight directors, and other stakeholders. I learned a lot about how people work well together—or don’t—in small spaces and isolation, and that work set up future opportunities. 

In July of 2015, I started a three-year, $1 million project—CREWS: Crew Recommender for Effective Work in Space—with two researchers from Northwestern University. Our goal is to create an algorithm which will help NASA predict how well different combinations of people would do on a 30-month mission. Over the past year, we’ve collected data in the Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) at Johnson Space Center in Houston. We’ve put teams of four into isolation and confinement for 30 days, asking them to perform specific tasks under varying conditions and assessing to what extent variables—such as gender, demographics, personality types, temperament, habits, and underlying values—affect their interactions, their attitudes toward one another, and overall team performance. 

We’re using what we’ve learned to inform our computer simulation, called an agent-based model, which allows us to play out a potential mission with thousands of virtual teams and manipulate “reality” to predict responses: How would particular combinations of team members react to different situations? Would those reactions change over time? The final outcome will be a Crew Recommender System. Our system will also help NASA identify problems most likely to occur with a chosen crew, and this information could be used to design interventions.

This year I was awarded a new grant to coordinate our work with that of Russian researchers who are addressing the same type of questions. This first-of-its-kind collaboration is important because long-duration space exploration will involve multiple agencies and an international crew; no one country can afford to go to Mars on its own.

Our work will focus on interpersonal relationship formation within crews. It’s really a cool project, because our Russian partners look at interpersonal compatibility a little differently. US researchers tend to use a normative approach, looking for attributes and attribute combinations that predict desired outcomes. The Russian researchers focus less on specific traits and, instead, use clever measures that assess interpersonal compatibility. The goal of the project is to integrate the two approaches, and we’ll use a novel approach to data analysis to do that.

Do students play a role in your work?

Oh yes, I’ve involved at least eight graduate students, as well as a handful of undergrads, in the work so far. My students are real partners in the research: They do literature reviews, data collection, and data analysis. Some of them have been with me to Johnson Space Center to prepare the crews for isolation; some have interviewed NASA astronauts and flight planners; and recently I took one with me to Moscow for the kick-off meeting with our Russian partners.

The knowledge and skills they’re gaining will be useful no matter what their interests in the future. We’re constantly engaged in critical and out-of-the-box thinking. We’re continuously sharpening our research skills. And we’re developing novel data techniques and conceptual frameworks that have implications for work teams in general. It’s pretty awesome experience.

Listen to Bell talk about her research and long-distance space exploration on Chicago Public Radio: