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Ground-control to James Kass

by Tim Hornyak

Many kids dream about being astronauts, but James Kass always wanted to be one of the ground-control team members who hears messages like "Houston, we have a problem."

In 1962, a Sir George Williams University career advisor asked a teenage Kass what he wanted to do with his life. "Space flight," was the answer, and Kass then described a typical day in his dream job: directing orbiting astronauts through scientific experiments from mission control back on Earth. The advisor told him to study physics.

Twenty-one years later, in 1983, Kass found himself in Houston's Johnson Space Center talking to astronauts on NASA's Spacelab 1 mission aboard the shuttle Columbia, helping them make minute adjustments to their cameras and electrodes 290 km above sea level.

Kass"If you believe in a dream, it can come true and it will. The right doors open," Kass said in a recent lecture on space-flight teamwork. The talk, which also focused on the practical and bureaucratic hurdles of space-borne science, was sponsored by the Department of Applied Human Sciences, where Kass is a visiting scientist.

Kass now conducts research into space medicine for Migrata, a private aerospace firm in Munich subcontracted to the European and German space agencies. His medical research will play a role in the recently launched International Space Station, but Kass may also advise its future occupants how to work together as a team. This is vital for people spending months in a confined, complex environment.

"In manned space flight, there are a lot of experts in physics, medicine, logistics, math and engineering," Kass said, "but if you ask me to sum up manned space flight in just one word, it would be 'teamwork.'" The teamwork involved in getting people into space involves an intricate process of coordination and compromise between competing scientists, industrial consortia, government agencies and, ultimately, the astronauts themselves."

In 1994, Kass and his sister, Concordia Applied Human Sciences Professor Raye Kass, designed CAPSULS, a psychological isolation experiment that examined how four Canadian Space Agency astronauts got along in a 64-foot long hyperbaric chamber on Earth.

"A lot changes after six months in space," said James Kass. "Somebody whom you think you get along with, you don't get along with later on. The Russians have tried to do a little more work in the area of putting a team together that they believe will get along. But more than 50 per cent of them are incompatible with each other."

Team problems in space flight can be both physical and cultural. One day, a Russian cosmonaut offered a taste of his grandmother's prized borscht to an American colleague aboard the Mir space station, Kass said.

When the American wrinkled his nose at the soup, the Russian became deeply offended -- hardly conducive to the camaraderie needed to deal with serious incidents, like the fire that broke out on the beleaguered Mir in early 1997.

The U.S.-Russian crew handled that crisis well together, but the 1986 Challenger disaster was a fatal
teamwork problem in which seven astronauts lost their lives. "It was not as much technological as it was
an accident of decision-making," Kass said.

NASA's investigation into the disaster concluded that it was due to "a failure in the joint between the two lower segments of the right solid rocket motor," but Kass insists that politics and poor communication also played a role, and that engineers who expressed doubts about the joints prior to liftoff were ignored.

"You'd have to read a thousand pages on it to have a very good idea of what happened, but in the end, it was a decision-making problem. So these are the kinds of things that could save lives by having the right method of communicating."

With the hundreds of groups collaborating on the International Space Station, teamwork experts like Kass will have their work cut out for them.

Copyright 1998 Concordia's Thursday Report.