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April 12, 2001 Simulated space mission shows need for more team-building





Raye Kass and Judith Lapierre

Applied Human Sciences professor Raye Kass and Judith Lapierre

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj


by Jane Shulman

Judith Lapierre, the sole female participant in a Russian space simulation last year, came to Concordia recently to talk about her participation in a confinement experiment. Raye Kass, professor of Applied Human Sciences and one of the principal investigators for project, opened her class to the community to hear Lapierre speak.

Lapierre was not trained as an astronaut. Her background is in nursing, psychology and sociology—she is currently a health promotions specialist in Ottawa.

However, she told the audience that something always drew her to astronomy. “I had dreamed of going to space for my whole life, and I decided to go for it,” Lapierre said.

The SFINCCS mission, as it was called, was the longest confinement experiment ever, as astronauts did not leave their chamber, measuring about 100 cubic metres, for 240 days. The simulator was in downtown Moscow.

The experiment was not necessarily intended to point to the need for a longer training period for crew members, but that is exactly what happened.

Lapierre made a media splash last January when she said that she was sexually harassed at one point during confinement, and that there was also a serious fistfight among other crew members during New Year’s celebrations in the chamber.

Lapierre’s story was top news for several days, focusing solely on the conflict, and not on the issues around it. The bottom line, she said in her speech, is that changes need to be made to training programs to include more emotional preparation and team work to avoid future problems.

Lapierre noted that countries are no longer able to afford missions on their own anymore because they are too expensive, so countries are going to be working together far more often than they did in the past. This can lead to language problems and culture clashes, as people under stress are not able to communicate effectively with each other.

Lapierre’s team entered the confinement halfway through the experiment, and remained in the simulation chamber for 110 days. Most of the people involved were Russian, but Lapierre’s team also had an Austrian crew member and a Japanese crew member. The common language in their chamber was English, but Mission Control spoke Russian, so the Russian crew members were the only ones who could communicate with them. When there was a problem, it had to be explained through a third party.

Kass, who specializes in leadership and small-group behaviour, was involved throughout the eight-month mission. She was the only other Canadian working on the project, and Concordia was the only university represented.

She and her research team created one of the dozens of experiments that the crew carried out during the simulation.

“It looked at psycho/social issues in space by having them do team talks every week,” Kass explained. The team talks only happened every two weeks, and the crew rarely talked with each other outside of those structured sessions, she said. Kass conducted interviews and team-building sessions with crew members, but said she and her team were not able to do as much work as they would have liked because they had limited access before and during the mission.

“There’s a big difference between a few hours of team building and several days of team training,” Kass said.

Many lessons may be learned from this mission. “There is no privacy,” Kass said. “It’s difficult to maintain morale and avoid boredom. You can’t call [people outside], because the whole world is listening.”

Providing the crew with sensitivity training and conflict resolution strategies is vital, she said, so that the crew begins looking at work as a team and getting along.

Lapierre agrees. She came up with several recommendations in a paper she drafted after the mission. These include providing individualized, pro-active support instead of a standardized system; attention to mental and physical health; adapting structures to the needs of crews; and better selection, training and support of crew members, among many others.

As for the conflicts that happened during the mission, Kass says it’s time to move forward by looking at how to improve future missions. She will be in Russia in June to present preliminary data, and said that a book will follow.