Neuropsychologist on Mission to Mars

By Ronald N. Williams, Ph.D.
May 15, 2014

Neuropsychologist on mission to MarsThe crew of HI-SEAS 2 consists of three women and three men.

Casey, an Air Force Reserve captain, is our commander and focuses his research on guidelines for EVAs (Extra Vehicular Activity – going outside the ship or habitat in space suits).

Ross, a fresh Ph.D. physicist, is our whiz for all things technical, electrical or computer-related. He is studying the effectiveness of plastic, 3D “printed” surgical instruments.

Lucie, a doctoral candidate in space science from France specializes in plant biology and is studying the effect of different forms and wavelengths of light on edible plant growth.

Annie, a chemical engineer with the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is investigating the conversion of waste materials to fuel sources.

Tiffany, a University of North Dakota graduate assistant, is our expert in space suit design and utilization as well as EVA planning and execution.

And then there is the psychologist, me, studying the personality and cognitive correlates to psychological adjustment and goal attainment.

Our first week together focused on learning and scheduling the daily/weekly psychological surveys and measures adopted by the NASA primary research team and various universities involved.

We also received a “crash course” in field geology from a vulcanologist with the University of Hawaii. The HI-SEAS crew has responsibilities like traditional astronauts, taking soil samples, dating and classifying various lava flows and other geologic formations.

Initial days in the habitat were devoted to food inventory and working out “bugs” in communication and power systems. So far, the communication bugs still “bug” us. A 40-minute delay in all communications, simulating the light-speed distance between Earth and Mars, is imposed by NASA through a delayed wifi server network.

The entire crew is non-finicky eaters, easily pleased. Our foodstuffs are common to any kitchen, including beans, potatoes, beets, tomatoes, beef, chicken, pork, tuna, shrimp, tomato paste, eggs, baking flour and milk. But, all items are dried, powdered, canned or in some way long-term storable.

All of us have been surprised with how good all the food tastes. In fact, we all have declared that we will probably start using such long term food items in our kitchens at home.

We’ve made pizza, spaghetti, breads, pies, cakes, soups, casseroles, calzones and a host of other freeze-dried delicacies. Long term isolation studies have consistently found the availability and variety of foods to be a key to psychological harmony and mission success. Given our satisfaction with what we have been provided, we should be on our way to success.

Meals are usually eaten together to foster team building. Each crew member is gradually getting to know the patterns and quirks of one another. Being alone in the “hab” is essentially impossible except for individual pie-slice-shaped bedrooms–tight but cozy.

We all live for the next opportunity to go outside and explore, photograph or repair something, even when it’s in a space suit. Group games for free times in the evening include Jenga, charade-type games, space monopoly and others. All crew members share a passion for space-related topics and discussions abound. Most evenings involve watching a space or sci-fi movie or TV show, projected from one of our laptops.

It seems that personality conflicts, so far, are very minimal. All crew are obviously of high or superior intellectual ability. Differences are certainly there. There are intense crew members and ones who are more laid back. Some have territorial issues based on expertise, some with a degree of OCD traits–not so uncommon in a selection of bright, successful and driven people.

So far cordiality and politeness keep things on an even keel. The risk is that one might hold in feelings or irritations that fester over time and result in more serious problems, something we need to watch for and prevent

The NASA psychology team has us completing a host of surveys covering our interactions, work and social, with each other. Objective measures of cognition, administered on computer, are being tested for use with astronauts “in the field.” Operationalized measures of cooperative problem solving and teamwork are also a part of our evaluations, as are measures of emotional state.

My application of older, highly validated instruments measuring similar constructs may be used to add to the cross and construct validity of the newly developed measures. Fortunately, the psychological instruments being used by the NASA team are not familiar to me and my role as a subject is valid.

My own adjustment has unfortunately focused on physical issues. I do happen to be twice the age, or more, of all the other crew members. Altitude-related respiratory issues have prevented any degree of restful sleep and it takes a toll on concentration, speed, endurance and probably emotions.

The younger crew members have been enormously welcoming to this “old guy” and have said they see me more as an older brother than as someone older than their parents. Life-long bonds are often created in hardship and close proximity. I look forward to that with these fine, bright, inspiring people.

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Ronald N. Williams, Ph.D., ABN, HSPP, is a clinical neuropsychologist and director of the Neuropsychological Department at the Fort Wayne Neurological Center in Indiana.

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