Indiana psychologist on mission to Mars

By Ronald N. Williams, Ph.D.
March 5, 2014

It’s not every day that one gets to realize a childhood dream and at the same time contribute to science and represent one’s profession in a high profile role.

As a young boy growing up in the 1960s, I followed the space race and idolized the astronauts the way most boys worship major sports figures. I always dreamed of being an astronaut or being part of a space mission – and recently that opportunity materialized.

In 2012, the University of Hawaii announced that it had received a sizable grant from NASA to study various aspects of what it would take to establish a small outpost habitat on Mars. The study would involve a simulation in a very Mars-like environ here on Earth.

Scientists living in this outpost would conduct various scientific studies and live every aspect of their lives as though they were on the surface of Mars. They would not be allowed to leave the protective habitat without donning space suits. Communication with the outside world would be delayed in accordance with the laws of physics that define how long it would take a radio signal to travel between the Earth to Mars – there will be about a 10 minute lapse between when a message is sent from one planet and when it reaches the other.

This project, known as HI-SEAS for Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, was accepting applications from scientists worldwide to serve on one of four planned “missions.” I applied for the first mission in the fall of 2012. I made the cuts down to the final 130 but was not selected. That mission focused primarily on nutrition and food preparation appropriate to long-term space voyages and planetary missions.

In the fall of 2013, I received a notice from the principal investigators that a second mission was planned and that I was listed among the most highly qualified candidates. They asked if I would like to reapply. Within 30 minutes I had an individual research proposal written and the application completed.

The focus of the second mission was psychology!

Maybe I had an edge. Granted, I was 59 years old but maybe I could interest them in the value of studying the age diversity in the project as well. The focus was to investigate the cognitive, personality, leadership characteristics, emotional adjustment and group dynamics in a confined, isolated environment.

The field of international applicants had been narrowed down from 800 to 130 and then eventually to 30 when we were all interviewed by Skype. After that, a final nine were chosen out of which there would be a prime crew of six and three alternates. That group of nine interviewed one another and reported to the principal investigators. Two weeks later the prime crew of six was chosen – and I had made it!

Those of us on this mission will be conducting individual experiments within our professional specialties and conducting a host of studies designed by the principal investigators and their research team. We will be confined in a 36-foot diameter dome on a barren high altitude lava field on the Big Island for four months except for occasional outings in space suits.

The “ground crew” of psychologists outside the dome will study group dynamics and leadership characteristics as well as communication styles and mission success or goal completion. They seek to standardize cognitive and personality tests specifically designed for astronauts aboard spaceships or planetary outposts. There will also be a focus on emotional adjustment and how this affects sleep, work efficiency and mission success.

I will also be available to provide psychological support for my fellow crewmembers. (Will they be able to provide psychological support to me?)

I will keep daily logs of our activities, especially from a psychological perspective, and I will share my experience in bimonthly columns in The National Psychologist during the mission. Daily blogs, Skype messages and links with public school classrooms also are planned.

Our mission to Mars begins March 21 and among experiences I expect to report on in my next article are a week of intensive pre-mission training and a nighttime “landing” on Mars.

The mission is to be completed toward the end of July and it is hoped we will “leave Mars” with many interesting scientific findings, particularly on the psychological aspects of long-term space travel. Stay tuned here to follow the adventures of a psychologist on Mars.

Ronald N. Williams, Ph.D., ABN, HSPP, is a clinical neuropsychologist and director of the Neuropsychology Department at the Fort Wayne Neurological Center in Indiana. The center provides a broad range of services involving neurology, physical medicine and neurosurgery and treats patients from the tri-state area of northeast Indiana, northwest Ohio and southwest Michigan.
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