It is, perhaps, the ultimate collaborative experience. While we are anchored on planet Earth, considering how to work effectively with our colleagues in familiar surroundings, up above us a group of multinational spacemen and women are trying to do the same, but in conditions that are about as extreme as they come.

The International Space Station (ISS), launched in 1998, is one of the few successful examples of an environment where men and women from widely differing backgrounds and cultures can collaborate in a manner conducive both to common success and to general well-being. If they weren’t able to function collaboratively together, then the result could be catastrophic.

Of course, unlike workers on Earth, who can go home at the end of the day and discuss their woes with a spouse or friend, crew members on the ISS have no such luxury. The ISS serves as home, office and recreation room for astronauts who share this confined space with crew members for as long as six months or more at a time.

Almost 20 years on, the ISS continues to be assembled in orbit and has been visited by astronauts from 18 countries – and that number continues to grow. NASA declares, rather self-evidently, that “maintaining individual well-being and crew harmony is important for the crew and mission success”.

So how do they all get along, given that every day they are working in zero gravity and in the most claustrophobic and challenging of conditions?

NASA says that “astronaut candidates begin working with international partners from the time they arrive for duty. Indeed, the latest tranche of astronaut candidates, who reported for duty in August of this year, was joined by the two new Canadian astronauts during all their training. Throughout training, they will visit our partners and their facilities around the world.”

The programme’s greatest accomplishment, says NASA, “is as much a human achievement as it is a technological one – how best to plan, coordinate, and monitor the varied activities of the programme’s many organizations.

“An international partnership of space agencies provides and operates the elements of the ISS. The principals are the space agencies of the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan, and Canada. The ISS has been the most politically complex space exploration programme ever undertaken.”

Among the traits, NASA looks for when selecting new astronaut candidates is those with demonstrated leadership skills, as well as those who have shown good communication skills, teamwork, and adaptability throughout their careers. “All new astronaut candidates,” says NASA, “go through approximately two years of training in which, in addition to learning space station systems, spacewalking skills, and robotics, they perfect their expeditionary skills, such as leadership, followership, team care and communication, through activities like survival training and geology treks.”

Somewhat surprisingly, the official languages of the International Space Station are English and Russian, not just English as might be assumed, and all crew members – regardless of the country they come from – are required to know both. NASA astronaut candidates start learning Russian at the beginning of their training. They train on this skill every week, as their schedule allows.

Zero Gravity Collaboration
Once an astronaut is assigned to a mission, they spend approximately two years training with their fellow crew members in advance of their launch to space.

Key to ensuring the best collaborative fit is NASA’s ‘Culture, Values, and Environmental Adaptation in Space’ investigation sponsored by the Canadian Space Agency. This enterprise looks at changes in perceptions about ‘home in space’ and the ways a unique culture may develop aboard the station during a mission.

Participants answer a series of questionnaires before, during and after the flight, enabling researchers to see whether perceptions and the relative importance of values change over the course of a mission. Questions explore individual and culturally related differences, family functioning and relationships, personal values and coping with stress.

“This is the first study to look at the extent to which a unique, shared space culture develops, whether crews develop customs and celebrations that are part of being on the station and different from what they would do on Earth,” says Phyllis Johnson, principal investigator, Department of Sociology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

Researchers expect to see a relationship between the creation of a space culture and how crew members respond to different situations. “They might be more of a team because of that culture and it might be a way to decrease stress,” Johnson said.

The investigation also takes the first look at how crew members adapt their living quarters to make them feel like home. Historically, astronauts have taken into space personal items such as photographs, children’s drawings, and hobby activities. But no one has asked crew members how important it is to have these things with them. The study also examines the effects on astronauts of their prolonged absence from family and familiar life on Earth.

Investigators note that this work goes beyond traditional space psychology’s emphasis on problems. “It is important to recognize and measure the positive effects of being in a challenging environment such as space,” says co-investigator and psychologist Peter Suedfeld, also at the University of British Columbia. “We look at the personal change in attitudes and perspectives once back on Earth to see the effects on an individual’s life after such dramatic experience.”

For multi-year missions, such as voyages to Mars, this work could lead to more effective ways for astronauts to feel at home and to collaborate effectively with fellow crew members. “If we can help them be comfortable and happy, it helps morale and the success of the mission, and reduces potential problems,” Johnson said.

NASA correctly points out that some communities on Earth experience conditions similar to those in space, including oil rig workers, crews on long-voyage tankers and cargo ships, researchers in remote locations, such as the Antarctic, and those on long military deployments, each of which requires a degree of collaboration that is outside the norm in everyday business environments.

By helping to identify the most effective ways to make astronauts feel comfortable, this research will ultimately lead to happier and more productive crews on long missions where stress and tension are unavoidable.

And in this zero-gravity, confined space, that has to be the ultimate goal for effective collaboration in an environment unlike any other.

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