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NASA case study

Read the NASA case study then answer the following questions with a 4 page paper (APA format) citing at least 4 references.


  1. Which team processes do you believe are most important to the crew of astronauts traveling to Mars? Why? Are there specific team processes you feel are relatively unimportant? Explain.
  2. Describe additional types of information that could be collected by the psychologists to help crews better understand their interactions and how they influence crew effectiveness.
  3. Discuss how team training could be used to build effective processes for the crew traveling to Mars.




In the 1970s hit “Rocket Man,” Elton John sings about an astronaut who’s all by himself on his way to Mars. The image of this solitary astronaut who feels “lonely out in space on such a timeless flight,” however, stands in contrast to the reality an astronaut often faces. Although astronauts sometimes work and live in isolated and extreme environments for extended periods of time, they typically do so with other astronauts, as part of a small team, more often referred to as a crew, in quarters that are quite cramped.


This type of environment creates challenges for astronauts employed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the agency responsible for civilian space programs and aeronautics research in the United States. NASA astronauts not only have to cope with the discomfort of traveling, working, and living in space, but they also have to learn to function with other astronauts as a cohesive unit to accomplish complex and dangerous tasks. Obviously, astronaut crews need to carry out activities that are involved in safely flying or orbiting their vessels. Crews also have to carry out all the tasks that are involved in their missions, which primarily involve exploration and experiments intended to better understand Earth and other bodies in space. What may be less obvious is that astronauts need to transition back and forth between individual responsibilities and crew responsibilities. They need to plan and coordinate their activities, monitor resources, and help each other. Crews that fail to effectively carry out any of these activities place not only their missions in jeopardy, but their lives as well.


With the retirement of the space shuttle program, the United States does not have its own spacecraft for piloted missions. However, NASA continues to recruit and train astronauts for duty on the International Space Station and for deep space exploration. Astronaut recruits are diverse with regard to demographic characteristics and areas of expertise. On the one hand, this type of diversity gives NASA the ability to compose crews for a wide variety of missions. On the other hand, it increases opportunities for misunderstandings during missions that could undermine crew cohesion and effectiveness. Although NASA’s training for astronaut candidates emphasizes the development of knowledge and skills related to operating equipment and systems, the ultimate effectiveness of astronaut crews is likely to depend on knowledge and skills related to teamwork as well.


NASA is planning a mission to send a crew of astronauts to Mars. Among other objectives, scientists are interested in the possibility of growing food in space, as there are now reasons to believe that Mars may be a good place to farm. Although this mission isn’t scheduled until the year 2030 or so, NASA has already begun to explore how aspects of the mission are likely to impact the crew’s ability to function effectively. You see, the crew of six to eight astronauts assigned to the mission will be living and working together in a noisy capsule about the size of an average kitchen for three years—it takes 6 months to get there, they’ll stay for 18 months, and then there’s the 6-month journey home. Given the constraints of their environment, and the fact that the crew will be working long hours under very demanding conditions, it’s inevitable that they’ll get on one another’s nerves on occasion. There’s literally no place to go to escape minor annoyances, and as frustration builds, the probability of emotional outbursts and interpersonal conflict increases.


Of course, it goes without saying that conflict among astronauts in a small space capsule millions of miles away from Earth is not a good thing. Astronauts who fail to fulfill a responsibility because they’re preoccupied with conflict could put the mission, and the lives of the entire crew, in jeopardy, and this is true whether the conflict is bubbling beneath the surface or has risen to the surface. Hard feelings could hinder teamwork as well, and the failure to communicate an important piece of information or to provide help to a member of the crew in need of assistance, as examples, could also lead to disaster. Unfortunately, however, the duration and demands of the mission are almost without precedent, and therefore, the specific practices that need to be implemented to facilitate crew functioning in this context are unknown.


To address this issue, NASA has awarded grants to psychologists to study teams that have to live and work together in isolated, confined, and extreme environments for extended periods of time. To help increase understanding of conflict and teamwork and how it can be better managed, the psychologists are working on technology that tracks the whereabouts of each crew member, as well as his or her vocal intensity and vital functions such as heart rate. This information would be used to pinpoint where and when conflict occurs and to understand how conflict influences subsequent crew interactions. The crew will be given feedback so they can learn how conflict hurts teamwork and cohesion. This feedback could also motivate crews to take the time to discuss teamwork issues and to devise ways to manage conflict and other process problems. Although it’s impossible to anticipate all the potential issues that could arise on the mission to Mars, NASA believes that research on team process is necessary to enhance the viability and performance of the crew that is ultimately charged with the task.


Sources: T. Halvorson, “8 Score Astronaut Spots out of 6,300 NASA Applicants,” USA Today, June 18, 2013,; E. John and B. Taupin, “Rocket Man” (1972). Universal Music Publishing Group; C. Moskowitz, “Farming on Mars? NASA Ponders for Supply for 2030 Mission,” May 15, 2013,; NASA website, “NASA History” (n.d.), (accessed July 8, 2013); A. Novotney, “I/O Psychology Goes to Mars,” Monitor on Psychology (March 2013), pp. 38–41; and R. Plushnick-Masti, “NASA Builds Menu for Planned Mars Mission in 2030s,” AP Online. July 17, 2012,