Could you charm your way into space?

What sort of person would you like to have as a companion in isolation?
06 October 2015

Interview with 

Dr David Green, Kings College London


What are the mental challenges of space travel and how do we make sure we Emotionssend the right team of people off in the space shuttle? Dr David Green from Kings College London told Kat Arney about the character traits needed for a good astronaut...

Dave - First, they have to be very competent. They have to be really good at maths and arithmetic. They have to be able to remember really long and complicated sequences of tasks and be able to perform them when there's real stress, when there's a real problem. There's also the softer skills - cooperation, collaboration, knowing when to be the leader, when to take a step back, a little bit like The Apprentice -  the team member that's always wanting to be team leader, isn't really the best person to be in your team.

Kat - What about kind of sociability? Do you need introverts, extroverts, party animals, or you just need like one party animal per crew?

Dave - It sounds like a question that we really should have the answer to but to be honest, we don't. I think one of the thing is, you need to be able to deal with conflict. But not to run, there's nowhere to run, there's nowhere to hide, so you need to face up to that conflict, but to diffuse it in a positive way.

Kat - And there's lots and lots of tasks that astronauts might have to do ranging from the very stressful situation of take-off to the mundane stuff on board. Do you need people that have a very wide range of skills that can tolerate the mundaneness of space life?

Dave - Well, much of being in space is doing the mundane tasks and you need people that can do those tasks. But understand that a small task that could in some senses be insignificant is important to the bigger picture to the whole mission. So, the Russians love making paper...

Kat - That origami kind of stuff, yeah.

Dave - Yes and you think what's that actually got to do with space flight. But by monitoring people doing the same task time and time again but to a high performance, so a very high level, that's the kind of person you need in space.

Kat - So, someone who can do endless amounts of origami patiently and correctly. But how else would you test people's things like team skills and that kind of stuff?

Dave - So, one of the things is you need to have people that are high functioning people, people that are good at things, but that see that bigger picture. So, you get them to do tasks. Where, you don't give them all the information and you put them in pairs or in groups. And so, there's an outcome for the whole group and they have to be working so that they are doing what they need to do but they're not compromising the overall goals of the team. 

Kat - The next thing is, the isolation. I mean, I find it hard enough working with Chris and the team sometimes but what about if we were on Mars, just us forever? How do you train people or select people who can cope with that kind of isolation?

Dave - On Earth, there's three main models of being so isolated. There's the Nemo which is what NASA use. They become aquanauts. So, it's a habitat that's 90 meters down off Key Largo in Florida. And so, they go down and they live and work there for 7 to 14 days. Then the Russians did something like Mars 500. They had an international crew staying basically in a warehouse that was mocked up to be a little bit like a spacecraft for 520 days continuously. Not a lot of fun, but they ultimately knew they were in Moscow. And then there's Concordia which is in Antarctica. Actually, that's the best thing because 9 months, you're on your own. No one can come to help you.

Kat - And presumably, no one can hear you scream. So, thanks very much. That's Dave Green. He's a lecturer in Human and Aerospace Physiology at King's College London.


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