NASA looks to Clemson research stars for answers to Mars mission

Psychology professors, Tom Britt and Marissa Shuffler at Planetarium in Kinard Hall.

Psychology professors, Tom Britt and Marissa Shuffler at Planetarium in Kinard Hall.

A three-year, 70-million mile space voyage takes some serious planning. And the world’s largest space agency has turned to Clemson in preparing for the first-ever manned mission to Mars in 2030.

In laying the groundwork for this marathon adventure, NASA has tapped Clemson psychology 
professors Tom Britt and Marissa Shuffler to make recommendations on the health and performance of astronauts for the 36-month journey. Britt and Shuffler are familiar faces to government-funded research, with both having worked on U.S. Department of Defense projects.

Both researchers are in the first phase of study for the Mars mission, with Britt exploring the issue of meaningful work as a potential antidote to extended boredom in isolation, while Shuffler focuses on the dynamics of multiple teams working together in multi-team systems composed of astronauts and a myriad of international ground personnel.

Even though the maiden voyage to Mars is 15 years away, design work has begun on Orion, the space capsule. The command module is estimated to have less than 320 cubic feet of habitable space and is capable of handling two to six crew members. Britt said the close quarters present many challenges to the astronauts, given the length of the mission — a year traveling to and from Mars and two years living on the red planet.

“The initial research will look at what can offset the monotony and boredom of being confined in a small space for such a length of time, not to mention the psychological effects of extended isolation,” Britt said. “The first phase of the study will provide an analysis about previous research and the operational assessment of astronauts. The result will be recommendations on what the mission planner and crew psychologists can do to better prepare the astronauts for this rigorous journey.”

In providing NASA with research literature, Britt has been asked to interview current and former astronauts and astronaut trainers.

“The idea is to find out what was learned in previous missions about the benefits of meaningful work and how it reduced the negative effects on the astronauts’ stress,” Britt added. “The hope is this work may be a precursor to potentially creating a coping strategy training module for the ground crew to use when communicating with the astronauts.”

Likewise, Shuffler is conducting interviews with a focus on teamwork and multi-team system issues for those who have been involved in space flight or subjected to isolation in environments like the Arctic for extended periods 
of time.

“I’ve talked to astronauts, a retired flight director, scientists involved with space missions and people who have spent winters in the Arctic,” Shuffler said. “One of my charges is multi-team systems and understanding the dynamics between mission control and the astronauts and how all the associated teams can work together toward a cohesive outcome. There’s also the international component of astronauts and support staff and communications from the various mission controls that will be involved.”

Beyond teamwork among the many parties, leadership is another deep dive Shuffler is doing in her NASA research for the estimated $100 billion mission. Shuffler and Britt said the first phase of research could well lead to more questions from NASA and additional studies.

“Marissa and I are just cracking the surface on some of the critical information NASA needs in preparing for a mission of this significance,” Britt said. “It’s a fascinating and rewarding project that we are both honored to be a part of.”

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