Science Journal

Photo: Mars 500

In this month’s Science Journal we talk to the Czech psychologists who monitored the participants in the Mars 500 experiment.

A year and a half ago on this programme we talked about the Mars 500 programme and the role that Czech psychologists are playing in that major endeavour. For a reminder, the aim of the project, among other things, to test the steel of human nerves by locking six would-be astronauts in a mock spaceship, sending them to a mock Mars and then bringing them back to the very real Moscow parking lot from whence they started their journey – a journey to nowhere but into the mind. The course of that journey was being monitored by the Czech company QED, which specialises in a psychoanalytical method called sociomapping, used to study and foster interpersonal relations on the “ship”.

The project is now over – at least for the “astronauts”, who were released on schedule this month. To find out how the project went from the Czech end at least, I talked to Radvan Bahbouh, the director of QED, who I asked how the method had proven itself:

“We are only at the very beginning of analyzing all of the things connected to communication within the team. I suppose you know the main reason why we have been using sociomapping in the Mars 500 programme: it is necessary to check whether the trends in communication are constant or whether there are some risks, for example concerning the decrease of communication or channels that are in a ‘stuck state’. And if we find something problematic then we have been able to give such information to the control centre and ask them to debrief the members of the team and encourage them to find time for communication about communication.”

You were monitoring them for a year and a half, so did they have any serious problems in communications? Did it come to any crisis points?

“I think in comparison with all of the previous experiments, this team was the best, in terms of having not only good quality but quantity of communication. Of course there are some problems, if we have an international team then it is normal that there are some subgroups – one national subgroup was that of the Russian astronauts, and it is visible in the sociomaps that they were more closed off towards each other than towards the other members. But that’s normal. In a team of six people, you don’t have the same frequency of communication in all channels. Sixteen people means fifteen communication channels, and some of them are very god in terms of flexibility and exchange of information, and others are not.”

Are there any specific situations that you can tell us about? I assume much of it is still not open to the public, but are there any situations that you can tell us about that occurred?

“Yes it is too early, because we don’t want to open all of the information about this without having gone through it with the members of the team and the control centre. But I think I can say that communication within this team was relatively stable. Based on previous research we supposed that at the end of isolation – at the end of this work – there would be a big risk of decreased communication. The critical point of all previous experiments was at the end, before ‘landing’. And in this team it wasn’t so critical – they were able to communicate with good quality until the end of the experiment...”

So there was nothing that would have jeopardized the mission had it been a real mission to Mars and back?

“I think that in this team there was no great risk. I think that was partly because that was caused by the fact that they had time to be debriefed about their communications and to think about it. Because they had the opportunity to be more mindful of their communication and see long-term trends and to do something about it. So that opportunity to think about communications with other members and to think about misunderstandings, and about the real state and ideal state… they had that opportunity to think about their next steps and how to improve communications.”

You use sociomapping in many other situations, like in the workplace and elsewhere. What have you learned from this experiment, and how will it help you in other regards?

”Yes, for example we will be able to add the real liability of skills, how stable communication is during such a long period in isolation. We are able to differentiate some phases in team dynamics, because there are studies about that, and we can check them to see whether we have the same scenarios visible in the dynamics of our sociomap. For us, it is a very important and very useful type of experiment. And we can correlate our data with external data, for example medical or performance of the team. I think it is good to find connections between the team’s communication and their performance. And tha is a very interesting question, whether there iss a relation between these two things – performance and team communication.”

The episode featured today was first broadcast on November 12, 2011.