Dialogue Summer 2017

Deep Space Northwestern

In 20 short years, humans are scheduled to embark on what will arguably be the most treacherous, challenging, and significant voyage in history— and Northwestern School of Communication faculty and students are helping make it possible.

NASA has formalized plans to send a manned spacecraft to Mars, the inhospitable terrestrial planet that is 34 million miles from Earth at its nearest point. Among the worldwide teams of researchers toiling over the journey’s inherent physiological and engineering obstacles, professors in the Department of Communication Studies have been selected to study one essential element that will determine the mission’s success: how the crew can best function.

Even for a well-trained astronaut, the psychological demands of this Mars journey will be exceptional.

The space capsule will be small—roughly the size of a studio apartment; the round-trip journey will take more than two years; the crew members will face language and research barriers; communication delays with worldwide mission controls will exceed the 20-minute mark.

Gabe Plummer, a fourth-year media, technology, and society student, guiding lab exercises for Project RED

“NASA is interested in technology and in human physiology,” says Noshir Contractor, the Jane S. and William J. White Professor of Behavioral Sciences in the School of Communication, the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the Kellogg School of Management. “They are really interested in the effect on an individual’s mental state and affect, but also, more importantly, in how team members can work together.”

Contractor is collaborating with Leslie DeChurch, who recently joined the faculty as professor of communication studies, and Suzanne Bell of DePaul University on four NASA-funded projects exploring team dynamics and compatibility in preparation for the Mars journey. Each project focuses on a different aspect of crew functioning and involves collaborators who are leading experts in their fields: team composition (Bell), social networks during extreme isolation (Jeffrey Johnson at the University of Florida), and team cognition (Jessica Mesmer-Magnus at the University of North Carolina–Wilmington). Alongside student researchers, they collect and analyze data, design and run computer simulations, and work closely with NASA scientists to ensure that this crew, and all subsequent crews, have the right teamwork stuff.

“These are super humans. They are people who are incredibly physically fit and extremely smart. They are highly motivated and have amazing psychomotor abilities,” says DeChurch. “We’re taking an already state-of-the-art crew selection system and making it even better by finding the values, traits, and other characteristics that will allow NASA to compose crews that will get along.”

Contractor, a leading expert in network analysis and computational social science, leads Northwestern’s Science of Networks in Communities (SONIC) research group. DeChurch, with her Advancing Teams, Leaders, and Systems (ATLAS) lab, keeps a close watch on psychology, social interactions, and how multiteam systems best function.

“Our complementary strengths have been a winning combination for tackling the big interdisciplinary questions,” says DeChurch.

The Mission

Suzanne Bell, Noshir Contractor, and Leslie DeChurch outside the Human Experimentation Research Analog at the Johnson Space Center

In collaboration with international space programs, NASA has pledged to send humans to the Red Planet in the 2030s. For decades researchers have dispatched robotic emissaries to Mars to collect data about water, life, and, coming soon, the availability of oxygen. But a manned mission involves considerably more, well, gravity.

Consider the scope. The moon is about 239,000 miles from Earth and took Apollo astronauts three days to reach. Mars, however, is 140 times farther away. Once the crew of four (or six) astronauts arrives on the planet, they will spend about a year gathering atmospheric data, taking soil samples, and seeking signs of microbial life. Then it’s another year heading home—all despite immense mental and physical discomfort.

Factors such as effective communication, leadership, teamwork, and coping strategies might be overshadowed by technological challenges, but NASA has recognized that crew camaraderie can and will make or break the mission.

“There is no getting out of the team,” Contractor says, “so team dynamics become important.”

The Projects

The first three of the four NASA studies address different aspects of the crew’s challenges:

  • The likelihood that the crew and its support teams on Earth will have good chemistry and coping mechanisms; how to predict possible crew-compatibility outcomes
  • Work design; structuring the workflow so that astronauts can better manage transitions from solo to team tasks
  • Identifying and building shared mental models, whereby a team of varied specialists can find enough common ground to effectively accomplish their tasks but not so much that they engage in “group think” or form alliances.

The fourth and newest study—in partnership with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency—examines measures of interpersonal effectiveness discovered in Russian space analogs and seeks to validate them in US flight analogs.

The Northwestern researchers are culling data from existing literature as well as real-time surveys of astronauts at work. Much of the useful data is drawn from the Human Experimentation Research Analog at Houston’s Johnson Space Center. HERA’s capsule simulator houses astronauts for up to 45 days; a mock mission control outside the capsule augments the realism with sound effects, vibrations, and communication delays. Those on the inside play simulation games, undergo sleep deprivation, and try to perform tasks. Contractor, DeChurch, and their students collect moment-to-moment metrics about individual performance, moods, psychosocial adaptation, and more.

Additionally, National Science Foundation research conducted in Antarctica will be used to examine the effects of isolation and confinement on crews. Further data will come from the International Space Station, where astronauts will begin answering short surveys on teamwork and task completion that were developed right here on campus.

“It’s a very exciting opportunity to make a difference in a way that most people don’t,” says Contractor. “NASA has an acute awareness that it’s not only about technology and physiology—it’s also about social sciences, it’s also about social dynamics.”

Computation, Data, and Modeling

The project looking at compatibility and predicting team outcomes is the most computationally intense. The large data arrays generated by HERA, the ISS, and past missions as well as information from physiological exams are fed into the Crew Recommender for Effective Work in Space (CREWS)—custombuilt simulation models designed by Contractor and his students. The simulators use the platform Netlogo, a popular multiagent programmable system available to students and professors worldwide (and developed by Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy professor Uri Wilensky). The researchers then parametrize, or add importance, to certain personality factors or scenarios. As they run the simulations, they can manipulate the configurations around prospective team members or personality traits to track their effect on team cohesion and performance. After over 4 million model runs, the simulation’s predictive qualities have proved phenomenal.

Even at these early stages, CREWS is useful to NASA. As researchers plan to send new teams into HERA or on low-orbit missions, the simulations can help predict how well they will work together.

“We know that when people go into space, there are negative biological effects: their bones get lighter, eyeballs enlarge, and more. It’s good to know these things will happen, but it’s also good to mitigate their happening,” says Contractor. “It’s the same analog they know from the life sciences that they are asking us to apply to the social sciences.”

So just as an astronaut would do special exercises to strengthen bone density, the simulations can help prescribe certain adjustments or task changes that will promote the health of the team. In researching mental models, Contractor and a postdoctoral student studied a 1970s mission to Skylab, the precursor to the ISS. At one point the crew became so upset with the unrelenting flow of tasks sent by mission control that they went on strike for a day. Contractor says that in their analysis, they could see advance warnings that such a communication breakdown would occur—and their predictive models could have prevented it.

Describing how the model works, Contractor says, “It’s like a movie that shows the team on day one until the end of the mission, and how much they will like and dislike each other over the course of the mission. If you put this team together, how likely are they to fall apart?”

DeChurch’s ATLAS lab collects much of the human subject data for CREWS using the platform Project RED (Redplanet Exploration and Development). The ATLAS lab houses a mock mission control center in Northwestern’s Frances Searle Building that directly interacts with NASA’s HERA crews to locate and design a well that may support a future colony on Mars. The software allows the collection of high-resolution data on information sharing, decision effectiveness, communication, leadership, and many other variables integral to crew functioning. This data is then used to parameterize the computational models designed at SONIC.

“This platform allows us to conduct experiments that mimic the kinds of separation the crew will experience as they journey farther from Earth,” DeChurch says. “For example, our software allows us to induce a time lag on messages between the crew and mission control.”

The longer crews do these exercises—up to 45 days on HERA—the more accurate and dependable the data sets are. The information is useful not only for intracrew functioning but for how teams of teams collaborate.

 “We have information on cognition, interpersonal relations, who is emerging as a good leader,” she adds, “and we can see how those networks form and which patterns lead to performance.”

Applications—and Implications—Closer to Home

There is always a chance that this manned journey to Mars will not happen. NASA may scrap the plans or instead ramp up their robotics program. DeChurch is prepared for this possibility but remains undeterred in her research mission.

“It helps us understand a lot of the teamwork problems we face on Earth,” she says. “It does so by pushing the bounds of science.”

Contractor’s predictive models will help missions in the immediate future. DeChurch’s research on multiteam systems has broad earthbound implications for international networks.

“If we can work on this case, where crew members have the most dysfunctional fault lines in terms of culture and expertise, and where they face extreme conditions of communication delays, isolation, and confinement in a threatening environment,” she says, “that can help a lot of multinational organizations work better.”

The findings will also apply to scientific collectives, where hierarchies and differences in belief systems or politics can interfere with team dynamics. In fact, any complicated, high-stakes interteam mission could profit from the important basic coping strategies emerging from DeChurch’s research. In one HERA crew they studied, a team member was singled out as functioning poorly in times of stress—because she didn’t use humor to alleviate the tension.

“This shows you the kinds of traits that wouldn’t be in NASA’s initial selection system,” she says. “If you’re going to live and work together in a tiny capsule for two-and-a-half years under life-threatening conditions, something as simple as that might really change the social climate.”

And, consequently, help get the team safely back home.


Mars-bound astronauts are not the only team in question. There will be teams in mission control centers around the world and the teams of researchers and scientists supporting them. How these teams of teams interact and collaborate can determine the mission’s success.

A novel, and helpful, element of Northwestern’s research and simulations of multiteam systems is that they are in fact operating as a multiteam system. Students from the ATLAS and SONIC labs collaborate with each other and with Bell and Johnson’s research teams; DeChurch and Contractor are coordinating their own complementary research objectives; and the whole outfit is exchanging information with international partners and their sponsors at NASA. Until last fall, DeChurch and her ATLAS lab were based at Georgia Tech, throwing an added kink into the collaboration. But lessons learned in their daily operations contribute to the larger research objectives.

“The breaks that are ultimately going to determine whether the mission fails are much more likely to happen at the borders between teams than they are to happen just within one of those crews,” says DeChurch. “In terms of how that focus affects how we build our labs at Northwestern, it’s been very synergistic for us to create these boundary-spanning roles and interdisciplinary cross-lab teams.”

DeChurch and Contractor met through military research sponsors while DeChurch was at Georgia Tech. Each had been tapped independently for NASA projects, but the synergies across their research interests soon led to a partnership — and to DeChurch’s eventual move to Northwestern. They now operate a system of teams working in tandem, much like the very subject they’re tasked with codifying.


Noshir Contractor and Leslie DeChurch each have about a dozen undergraduates, graduate students, and post-doctoral fellows working on the four NASA-funded projects. The graduate students represent the doctoral programs in technology and social behavior, industrial engineering and management sciences, and media, technology, and society; the undergraduates are largely but not exclusively communication studies majors. Contractor directs the SONIC (Science of Networks in Communities) research group, involving many of his graduate students; DeChurch runs the ATLAS (Advancing Teams, Leaders, and Systems) lab, which is new to the University.

“I was taking Professor DeChurch’s team communication class last quarter, and the more she explained her work, the more interested I became in her field,” says junior Ann Kalfas, who is now an intern with the ATLAS lab. “It’s amazing to think that we’re currently testing the same software that astronauts may use later when preparing for a trip to Mars.”

Glamorous client aside, the students are continuously learning about the patience needed for large research endeavors. “I think the biggest challenge of this work is the sample size,” says Zachary Gibson, a second-year technology and social behavior student. “As a social scientist, I’m used to working with large samples from which it is relatively easy to use inferential statistics and make generalizable statements. As a computer scientist, I’m used to designing for small populations with a specific technology need. For me, this project requires a fusion of or shift from those mindsets to working with small samples in a social context.”

Yet the work is demonstrating both to students and to research communities beyond that this endeavor has fundamental value in science and society.

“People often view the study of teams as more of a ‘fun’ research area than a ‘necessary’ area, especially from the viewpoint of the harder sciences,” says Lindsay Larson, a third-year media, technology, and society student and the ATLAS lab’s student lead. “But researchers of teams, multiteam systems, and leadership are all getting funding for research on the Mars mission, just like the engineers getting NASA funding to develop engines or space suits. This work can give more credibility to our research in the eyes of all researchers, not just those studying the social sciences.”