Crew compatibility will be a major influence in the International Space Station

Tim Furniss/LONDON


US, Russian, Japanese, European and Canadian cosmonauts and astronauts will soon take part in a 240-day simulation of life aboard the International Space Station (ISS) at the Russian Institute of Medical and Biological Problems in Moscow.

The participants, including Russian cosmonaut Dr Valeri Poliakov, the space endurance record-holder with a 436-day spaceflight under his belt will work in "shifts" - one lasting 110 days, for example - while others will "visit" for a week or more. All ISS conditions will be simulated - except that of microgravity.

The main reason for the simulation is to assess compatibility and relations between crewmembers of different nationalities and cultures, working together in confined and stressful conditions for long periods.

The simulation is not new - nor is the study of crew compatibility. But one new factor with the ISS, once it is operational, will be that multinational crew members may work together after only a brief training period, or they may even meet for the first time in orbit. This may not be critical during short crew exchanges in orbit, but could become a problem during a 90-day working shift, which will initially involve three crew, eventually building to six.

NASA's Life and Microgravity Sciences and Applications Office has designed a behaviour and performance programme for ISS operations. Based on experience of past flights, it will involve regular monitoring of ISS crews. It also uses much of the data obtained by research teams working for long periods in the isolation of the Antarctic.

The study focuses on crewmember and crew-ground interactions during the ISS. Nick Kanas of the NASA Life and Microgravity Office says: "Space analogue studies on earth and anecdotal reports from space suggest that changes occur in the interpersonal environment of crews in long-duration space missions that affect the ability of the crewmembers to interact safely and productively and to accomplish mission goals."

The ISS crew and ground team will be requested regularly to provide feedback on several hypotheses. It is assumed that tension and impatience, uneasiness and morbid restlessness will increase in time and that this will be reported to the ground. An example of crews not reporting health and welfare issues occurred during the 1974 Skylab 4 space-station mission when its crew did not report space sickness.

NASA assumes that crew-cohesion levels will decrease over time and that the role of the crew commander will become crucial, including the need for him or her to demonstrate total authority. The perceived importance of crew "language and dialect commonality" will vary according to job orientation, says Kanas. Fluency in the official ISS language - English - will play a major role.

These, and other hypotheses, will be tested by having ISS crew members and personnel in mission control answer a series of 15min questionnaires before, during and after a mission.

Most of today's space crews train together for a year or more before a flight. Sometimes, when other crew are added later in training, problems in crew cohesion occur. But, for shuttle flights of up to two weeks, crew compatibility is not as critical. As one astronaut has said: "The risk of not getting along with someone is worth the chance of making a trip into space."

Russian space officials have always seen crew compatibility as a major issue. It plays a vital part in selection, particularly as many fly long-duration missions.

Even so, there have been problems. In 1973, the carefully selected original Soyuz 14 crew was grounded days before lift-off after crewmembers started arguing and were replaced by reserve crew. Later, crew changes meant that a pair of cosmonauts was teamed for a long-duration mission on Salyut 7 later in the cycle than normal. Tensions showed, but the launch took place.

Within two weeks of a then-record-breaking mission in 1982, the cosmonauts were not speaking to each other and broke their silence only when visiting crews arrived. The episode was related to other psychological factors, including isolation and stress. The experiences of long-duration flights aboard the Mir space station by Russian and US astronauts during the Shuttle Mir Mission (SMM) programme were unsuccessful. Some NASA astronauts did not try to integrate with the Russian crew in space and became isolated, moody and depressed.

Language skills

The Russian-language skills of some were poor. Others made efforts to become part of the crew, learning fluent Russian and even performing the most mundane tasks. One NASA Mir astronaut was launched to meet a Russian commander whom he hardly knew.

Many Russian commanders, perceived as autocratic by others on the team, did not like visitors touching controls or being involved in the running of the station.

The SMM programme helped to identify problems that could occur on the ISS with the first three-person crews consisting of US and Russian astronauts. To curb ISS crew members' nationalistic tendencies, for example, NASA and Russia have agreed that the countries will alternate ISS command.

Source: Flight International