NASA has studied astronaut crew dynamics and composition for years. But a newer thrust of research focuses on how teams work with other teams—including members with different nationalities, genders and professional backgrounds. Psychologist Dorothy Carter, PhD, an assistant professor of industrial/organizational psychology at the University of Georgia, is an investigator on a multi-institution NASA grant to understand how teams made up of astronauts, mission control staff and other NASA personnel would interact on a long-duration mission—such as a journey to Mars.

In the three-year project, Carter and her colleagues are interviewing NASA personnel and studying interactions between teams in her lab and at NASA’s space-analog HERA, a simulation habitat at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. They’re also using computer modeling to understand multiteam dynamics.

When teams fail to work well together, the results can be disastrous, Carter says. She points to the demise of the unmanned Mars Climate Orbiter, which burned up in the red planet’s atmosphere in 1999 when a communications failure led to one team of engineers using English units of measurement while a second team used metric. And an investigation of the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster identified communication barriers between teams as one of the causes.

Carter hopes her project will prevent such failures by understanding how teams interact. How do they communicate? Do they share goals? What issues arise related to competition and leadership hierarchies? Carter and her colleagues also plan to develop training tools to avoid potential pitfalls and enhance effectiveness.

“We need to understand how these distinct teams fit together to send this one team of humans into deep space,” Carter says. —Kirsten Weir