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November 23, 2000 Teamwork is the key to harmony in space: James Kass

 

 

Raye and James Kass are professors in Concordia’s Department of Applied Human Sciences.

Raye and James Kass are professors in Concordia’s Department of Applied Human Sciences.

Photo: Andrew Dobrowolskyj



by Sigalit Hoffman

Space missions are key to maintaining world peace, according to James Kass.
Kass is a physicist, adjunct professor in Concordia’s Department of Applied Human Sciences (AHSC) and a consultant to the European Space Agency. He gave a lecture in AHSC on January 4 about his work and its prospects for the future.

He said he was pleased that the European Space Agency had been able to bring countries together to work on space projects, and called it a good investment for peace. In fact, he said, international co-operation has become a necessity, because no one nation can afford to go it alone.

The end of the Cold War also marked the end of the “lone hero” in space, and Kass wants to see this reflected in the selection criteria for astronauts. Astronauts have always been expected to be aggressive, extroverted and strong-willed. There’s a dawning realization that they should also be able to work in a team, emotionally stable, empathetic, and motivated.

To Kass, the space station is the ultimate human construction. “In the old days,” he said, “they built cathedrals. Now, they build space stations.” However, while our space technology is highly sophisticated, the human factor has been sadly neglected. That’s where teamwork helps, both among countries and among individuals. But while international collaboration has advantages, Kass said, “organizationally, it’s a nightmare.”

Humour is a crucial index of cultural understanding, he added. “You do have a problem when you mix cultures together. You can learn the language of the other, but you don’t always understand their jokes.”

There are observable effects of crew incompatibility — weight loss, more errors and poorer communication — and the Russians, with their experience in long-term human space flight, have supplied invaluable data. However, the Russians are like casting agents; they concentrate on putting together compatible teams, not in teaching team members how to become compatible. That’s where James and Raye Kass come in.

Kass and his sister Raye, an AHSC professor, participated in the 1999 Simulation of Flight of International Crew on Space Station (SFINCSS) project in Moscow’s Institute for Biomedical Problems. The 240-day project was the longest space flight simulation ever achieved, and Concordia was the only Canadian university involved.

During the 240 days of the project, three four-person crews from five countries spent time in the simulator. The Kasses gave each crew questionnaires and interviews before and after they went in. They asked each group to meet every two weeks for “team talk sessions,” which had a specific focus and were aimed at problem-solving. A mass debriefing session for each group was held after their exit from the simulator.

These sessions were unusual for the crews, because they didn’t have any reason to talk to one another except as part of the Kass project. They grew to appreciate the talks. In fact, had it not been for the group meetings called for in the Kasses’ study, one of the crew commanders would never have been aware of his crew members’ concerns.

The SFINCSS project suffered its share of problems. A fistfight took place at a New Year’s party last year, and a Canadian female crew member accused a Russian crew member of sexual harassment. The incidents made their way into the international press.

The Kasses said afterwards that they had only been given time to give a “team-building” rather than “team-training” session, and traced a lot of the problems to cultural misunderstanding. “Nothing that happened surprised me,” Raye said. “It just reconfirmed the importance of collaborative work.”

The crew talked eagerly about their experiences, and some of the follow-up interviews lasted four to five hours. A degree of trust was established, and James Kass said that this differed from the approach of other scientists on the project, who tended to collect data for their own purposes, resolutely avoiding offering feedback and criticism.

“They were afraid that if we helped the crew get along with each other, we would be using interventionist steps that would ruin their data.”

The Kasses’ data on human factors will be used in decision-making surrounding the new International Space Station.