Martian Psychology

Some recent updates about the Mars One mission have made me excited again about space travel. I grew up watching the Apollo missions live at school and at home. I was thrilled about the first Space Shuttle launch and the building of the International Space Station. In my graduate school years I also became interested in how psychology could contribute to the space program. As a fan of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, I was always fascinated (and disappointed) that psychology in the future seemed to have not advanced at all, according to the writers of the show. Clinical psychology in the future appeared to depend on the Empath skills of Counselor Troi. Her ability to sense the feelings of others (both alien and human) was quite handy! But, that was it. There still was no advanced understanding of prejudice, memory, emotions, etc.

Returning to the present, however, I have to wonder whether Psychology still has anything major to offer to space exploration. Of course, Mars One has a long list of engineers and companies that will contribute the different spacecraft components to get the astronauts to Mars, as well as the technology that will allow them to live there permanently. But what about psychology? Has our field advanced sufficiently to make important contributions that could benefit the Mars One mission? I looked over the Wikipedia entry about the mission, and saw that at least one psychologist (I think) is on the advisory board—Dr. Raye Kass of Concordia University in Montreal. Dr. Kass has published research on group dynamics and spaceflight before. She has edited a book on small group research. I’m sure she’s one of the leaders in this area, and I envy her role in the mission. But, what expertise is she actually offering that couldn’t be found in an undergraduate textbook on organisational psychology or small groups? Is this all psychology is offering—some advice about how to make sure the groups stay cohesive, work efficiently, have an effective structure, etc.?

Other ways I could see psychology contributing to such a mission would include human factors engineering (i.e., designing the technology to best suit the capacities of human perception and cognition), personnel selection, intelligence/personality testing, protocols to promote good psychological health (and prevent mental illness), interpersonal skills and problem solving, consultation about the architecture of the living spaces, how to reduce boredom, sadness, loneliness, etc., and how to best communicate with one another. There might be more to add to this list, but how different would the expertise be from what psychology could have offered to such a mission if it had been planned in 2000? Or 1990? Or 1970? Or 1950?  How much is our field really advancing? Why isn't psychology as vital to the planning of the mission as engineering or robotics? Or, is it?