Encyclopedia of Bioastronautics

Living Edition
| Editors: Laurence R. Young, Jeffrey P. Sutton

Crewmember Interactions in Space

  • Nick KanasEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-10152-1_33-1

Definition: Crewmember Interactions

Detailed Description

Fluid and positive interpersonal interactions in space are critical for crewmember well-being and the accomplishment of mission goals. Good interpersonal relationships suggest that a group of people is cohesive, that morale is good, and that emergencies requiring team solutions can be dealt with promptly and efficiently. Consequently, it is important to understand the factors that affect crewmember interactions and the ways in which they can be helpful and harmful. These factors can be categorized into those that are related to manned space missions in general, those that are specific to individual crewmembers, and those that are influenced by culture and family.

Factors Affecting Crewmember Interactions in Space

Mission-Related Factors

The Space Environment

Space can be a stressful environment for people. Even in physiologically compatible spacecraft, psychosocial stressors exist, such as isolation and confinement, potential danger, and microgravity. Such factors can influence crewmember interactions. In a survey of 54 astronauts and cosmonauts who had flown in space, Kelly and Kanas (1992) looked at issues related to communication that enhanced intra-crew compatibility. Of nine potential factors that were felt to influence crew communication, four were rated as significantly helping: Shared Experience, Excitement of Space Flight, Close Quarters, and Isolation from Earth. Three others were judged to hinder communication: Facial Swelling, Spacecraft Ambient Noise, and Space Sickness. Fluency in a common language also was judged to facilitate interpersonal compatibility. These findings suggest that a bonding experience may occur among space travelers who are physically close, who share common experiences, and who are involved in the same enterprise in an emotionally exciting manner.

Traveling in space has many positive aspects as well, and these also can affect crew interactions, cohesion, and morale. Some astronauts and cosmonauts have reported transcendental experiences, religious insights, or a better sense of the unity of humankind as a result of viewing the Earth below and the cosmos beyond (Connors et al. 1985; Kanas 1990). During his 211-day Salyut 7 mission, cosmonaut Valentin Lebedev (1988) wrote in his diary that taking pictures of the Earth became a hobby that helped to reduce interpersonal tension on-board with his fellow cosmonaut. This linkage between Earth observation and photography was studied by Robinson et al. (2013) in a retrospective survey of 19 astronauts and cosmonauts who had flown on 8 missions to the International Space Station (ISS). They found that of over 144,000 photographs taken, 84.5% were crew-initiated and were more likely to occur during free time than during work time. The investigators concluded that taking pictures of the Earth from space was a positive activity that increased well-being during long-duration missions.

Suedfeld et al. (2010) content analyzed the published memoirs of 125 space travelers and found that astronauts and cosmonauts reported more Universalism (i.e., a greater appreciation for other people and nature), Spirituality, and Power as a result of their experiences in space. Russian space travelers scored higher in Achievement and Universalism and lower in Enjoyment than Americans. In a survey of 54 astronauts and cosmonauts who had flown in space, the subjects rated the positive excitement related to their mission as being one of the most important factors enhancing communication within the crew and between the crewmembers and mission control personnel on the ground (Kelly and Kanas 1992, 1993).

One study examined positive factors in space by surveying 39 astronauts and cosmonauts (Ihle et al. 2006). Every respondent reported at least some positive change as a result of flying in space. In a content analysis of the questionnaire items, one factor was significantly different from the others in producing change: Perceptions of Earth. One item from this subscale, “I gained a stronger appreciation of the Earth’s beauty,” had the highest mean change, and three items (“I realized how much I treasure the Earth,” “I learned to appreciate the fragility of the Earth,” and “I gained a stronger appreciation of the Earth’s beauty”) were significantly associated with the behavioral item “I increased my involvement in environmental causes” after returning.

Time Effects and the “Third-Quarter Phenomenon”

There is evidence that time may impact on people working in isolated and confined environments. Some participants in Antarctic and space missions have reported having psychological and interpersonal difficulties after the halfway point of their mission. These difficulties have included increased homesickness and depression, irritability, isolation from others, and drops in group cohesion. One explanation for this is that the crewmembers experience a sense of relief that the mission is half over, but this is followed by an emotional letdown when they realize that there is another half yet to go before they return home. This letdown has been termed the “third-quarter phenomenon” (Bechtel and Berning 1991). It has received empirical support in some space analog studies (Palinkas et al. 2000b; Sandal 2000; Stuster et al. 2000) but not in others (Steel and Suedfeld 1991; Kanas et al. 1996; Wood et al. 1999).

A number of investigators have looked for the third-quarter phenomenon in studies of astronauts and cosmonauts. In his content analysis of personal journals from ten ISS astronauts, Stuster (2010) reported a 20% increase in interpersonal problems during the second half of the missions and felt that there was evidence supporting a higher frequency of such difficulties during the third quarter. However, he did not verify this conclusion statistically, and since he analyzed self-initiated diary entries, it is possible that there was a bias toward recording more dramatic negative rather than positive or neutral events in the second half.

In other studies that used measures with both positive and negative components that all subjects had to respond to, and then subjected these responses to statistical analysis, no general detrimental effects of time were found in the third quarter. For example, one team conducted two international NASA-funded studies of psychological and interpersonal issues affecting crewmembers and mission control personnel during on-orbit missions to the Mir and the International Space Stations (Kanas 2015; Kanas et al. 2000, 2001, 2007; Boyd et al. 2009). A total of 30 astronauts and cosmonauts and 186 American and Russian mission control personnel were studied who participated in space missions lasting 4–7 months. The investigators hypothesized that there would be psychological changes between the first and second halves of the missions, especially in the third quarter. Applying rigorous statistical methods, the investigators found no significant changes in subscale scores on measures of crewmember mood, cohesion, or interpersonal climate over time, in either the Mir or ISS study. Specifically, there were no general differences in subscale scores between any of the quarters of the missions. This is not to say that an individual astronaut or cosmonaut did not have a third-quarter drop in mood or morale – a few did (including one who later wrote publicly about his feelings). But such drops were countered by other crewmembers who showed mood upswings or no change in emotional status in the third quarter. The lack of a third-quarter phenomenon was also reported by Wu and Wang (2014) in a study of a crew participating in a 105-day isolation mission in the Lunar Palace 1 space station simulator in Beijing. Using versions of the same instruments used by Kanas et al., but adapted for Chinese subjects, Wu and Wang tracked their subjects over time and found no evidence of any change in their measures during the third quarter of the mission. Finally, in their study of Earth photography from space, Robinson et al. (2013) found no indication that their 19 astronaut and cosmonaut subjects took more leisure time photographs during the third quarter of their missions in order to reduce stress. In fact, they commented that their data did not support the presence of a third-quarter phenomenon.

This possible lack of a generalized third-quarter phenomenon in orbiting astronauts and cosmonauts may be due to the support they receive from family members and space psychologists and flight surgeons in mission control who utilize a variety of countermeasures to help them deal with stress throughout their missions. Such a strategy is in contrast to the situation that exists during the third-quarter Antarctic winter-over period, where the poor weather inhibits effective communication with the outside world. On future expeditionary space missions, such as to Mars, the long distances involved will cause delays in communicating with the Earth, making real-time conversations impossible. Crews will be more autonomous and less dependent on support from home, and like in the Antarctic, this may produce a more obvious third-quarter effect.

Individual Factors


Putting people together to comprise a compatible team for a space mission typically has been based on factors such as seniority, experience, and ability to work with one another during pre-launch training. If an individual does not make the grade physically or psychologically, there is a danger that the entire crew will be grounded in favor of the backup team. There needs to be a valid and reliable method of predicting who will get along in advance of training.

One way of comprising a crew is to select people with different but compatible personality characteristics whose needs can be met in a complementary manner (Haythorn 1970; Haythorn et al. 1972). For example, two people with a high need for dominance may struggle with each other, whereas one may get along fine with a fellow crewmember who does not have such a need. Sandal et al. (1995) studied six crewmembers who participated in a 4-week confinement study called ISEMSI (Isolation Study for European Manned Space Infrastructures), which was funded by the European Space Agency (ESA). They found that tension arose between the two crewmembers rated as being most dominant, one of whom was the commander. The person who was not the commander became socially isolated from the other crewmembers, suggesting that personality incompatibility led to competition and interpersonal expulsion of this member from the group. Gushin et al. (1998) evaluated three-person crews participating in two space analog confinement studies in Moscow, one lasting for 90 days and one lasting 135 days. In both studies, the participants were unable to make their personal self-concepts become more similar to their concepts about fellow crewmembers. This resulted in crew “disintegration,” with one member in each crew becoming an outsider.

One method of crew selection showing promise has been categorizing people in terms of instrumental and expressive traits. Instrumental traits (I) are related to goal-seeking and achievement motivation. Scored in a positive sense (I+), high goal orientation and a need for achievement result; if negative (I−), arrogance and egotism in striving for work goals are produced. Expressive traits (E) relate to interpersonal relationships. If positive (E+), the individual exhibits kindness and warmth toward others; if negative (E−), verbal aggressiveness and submissive behavior may result. Rating people in this manner has been used successfully in both aviation and space populations, with people scoring high in I+ and E+ being able to work hard for a goal while at the same time relating well with colleagues (Chidester et al. 1991; McFadden et al. 1994; Sandal et al. 1995).

Career Motivation

Non-personality issues also can affect crewmember interactions. Differences in career motivation and life experiences can create problems for isolated and confined groups. For example, Gunderson (1968) conducted a study of five US Antarctic stations and found that during the winter-over period, the naval personnel, who were used to working outside, experienced more psychological problems and interpersonal tensions than the civilians, who largely were scientists and technicians used to completing experiments and scientific reports indoors. A similar situation occurs in space. Some astronauts come from piloting or engineering backgrounds, and their mission tasks are related to flying and vehicle maintenance. Others come from scientific backgrounds, and their tasks are related to conducting experiments and performing non-operational duties. People from such groups have different professional norms, values, and traditions, and it is important that these be amalgamated so that the crew operates cohesively as a unit to accomplish mission goals.

Sometimes conflicts between scientists and nonscientists can lead to open hostilities. In one case involving a scientific expedition at sea, where the scientists kept extending the mission in order to collect more data samples, angry members of the homesick crew snuck into the refrigerator room one night and tossed the laboriously collected study samples overboard (Finney 1991). It is important for groups of people with different work backgrounds and motivations to respect each other’s roles and cooperate; otherwise, mission objectives may be compromised.


Mixed-gender crews have flown in space for decades, and women have performed on a par with their male colleagues. In 1996, an American female astronaut, Shannon Lucid, flew in space for over 6 months with two male Russian cosmonauts on the Mir space station, and the crewmembers completed their tasks and related well with each other. Astronaut Peggy Whitson set the American record for the longest time in space (289 days) as well as the most cumulative days in space for a woman of any nationality. Other male-female crews have flown together for several months on the ISS, and anecdotal reports have suggested that there were no major problems related to gender. Women have even assumed the role of mission commander, such as Peggy Whitson on ISS Expedition 16.

Studies on Earth have demonstrated that women perform well in space simulation environments. For example, on a Tektite submersible mission, the performance of a crew of five women was judged to be equal to or better than that of all-male crews participating in the project (Miller et al. 1971). Kahn and Leon (1994) evaluated an expedition team composed of four women that spent 67 days in the Antarctic and concluded that this team performed on a par with male or mixed-gender teams.

Women can sometimes improve the group climate. Leon (2005) concluded that all-male expedition teams showed patterns of strong competitiveness and little sharing of personal concerns, whereas women in both mixed-gender and all-female groups exhibited concerns about the welfare of their teammates. Wood et al. (2005) found that women in Antarctic stations were more sensitive than men to decrements in crew cohesion. In an ESA-funded space simulation study called EXEMSI (Experimental Campaign for the European Manned Space Infrastructure), three men and one woman were secluded in a hyperbaric chamber for 60 days. The female crewmember was seen as being a peacemaker, playing an important role in lowering tension in the group (Vaernes 1993).

However, interpersonal tension also may occur in male-female crews working under isolated and confined conditions. For example, sexual stereotyping was found during the 211-day Salyut 7 mission, when a newly arriving female cosmonaut was greeted with flowers and a blue floral print apron and was asked to prepare the meals (Lebedev 1988). Similar stereotyping was noted during the 61-day joint Soviet-American Bering Bridge expedition from Siberia to Alaska, and Leon et al. (1994) concluded that the Soviet men were more chauvinistic than their American counterparts toward the female expedition members. Stuster (1996) has pointed out that unwanted sexual attention has occurred during Antarctic missions and disruptions in cohesion took place as a result of male-female pairings. Rosnet et al. (2004) found the presence of seduction behavior, rivalry, and sexual harassment in their polar station study when the women were about the same age as the men. In a space simulation project conducted in Moscow that involved several multinational teams of isolated and confined individuals (called SFINCSS, or Simulation of a Flight of International Crew on Space Station), a female participant reported unwanted sexual advances (including kissing) from a male participant. This resulted in group tension and a breakdown of cohesion (Kass and Kass 2001; Inoue et al. 2004; Sandal 2004). Thus, attitudinal issues may affect male-female relationships during isolated and confined conditions, even though intellectual or performance differences are negligible. In terms of sexual activity to date, there have been no confirmed episodes of heterosexual (or, for that matter, homosexual) encounters in space, according to American and Russian astronauts and space experts (Karash 2000; Mullane 2006; Woodmansee 2006; Wall 2011).

Cultural and Family Issues


Increasingly, manned space missions have become multinational, a trend likely to continue in the future (Kanas 2015; Kanas and Manzey 2008). Consequently, it is important to examine the impact of cultural issues on crewmember interactions.

Helmreich (2000) has examined culture with reference to aviation and medical communities as space analogs. He has concluded that there are three aspects of culture that are relevant to space missions: national, organizational, and professional. Professional issues have been discussed previously in the section on Career Motivation. With reference to national culture, space crewmembers will have different ethnic backgrounds, nationalities, and native languages, which may lead to differences in behavior. Many of these are obvious, but others are more subtle. For example, Raybeck (1991) has stated that in some national cultures, people who like to be alone are regarded with suspicion or are seen as being nonconforming to the group norms. He warns that such cultural characteristics need to be acknowledged in planning for long-duration missions involving people working in confined environments, such as in space stations.

Helmreich’s third aspect of culture pertains to features of the employment organization of which the individual is a member. In terms of multinational space platforms such as the ISS, the major space agencies involved possesses different “macrocultures” that affect the way they do business (Committee on Space Biology and Medicine 1998). For example, NASA tends to train its astronauts to deal with a plethora of possible contingencies in preparation for their missions, whereas the Russian National Space Agency tends to focus on the major issues and to rely on the use of experts on the ground to resolve problems as they occur. In addition, as government employees, astronauts are paid a fixed salary for their duties, whereas cosmonauts receive a variable salary based on their performance. Such differences in organizational philosophy can affect how crewmembers and mission control personnel from different space agencies behave on the job and interact with one another.

National and organizational issues can have an impact on space crews. During a Russian-operated Salyut 6 mission, a visiting “guest” Czech cosmonaut joked that his hands turned red in space since whenever he reached for a switch or dial, one of the Russian cosmonauts would slap his hand away and tell him not to touch anything (Oberg 1981). During the 211-day Salyut 7 mission, cosmonaut Lebedev (1988) wrote in his diary that he felt discomfort at having a French visiting cosmonaut on-board in contrast to feeling more relaxed with Russian visitors 2 months later. During his 115-day visit to the Mir space station, astronaut Norm Thagard reported feeling culturally isolated as the only American working with two Russian cosmonauts (Benson 1996).

There have been a number of studies that have examined the impact of culture on crewmember interactions. Santy et al. (1993) surveyed nine American astronauts who had flown on international space missions and recorded 17 incidents of miscommunication, misunderstanding, or interpersonal conflict that impacted on the mission. All of the respondents said that it was important to have preflight training in cultural issues. Tomi et al. (2007) surveyed 75 astronauts and cosmonauts and 106 mission control personnel and found that both groups rated coordination problems between member organizations involved with the missions as being the most important issue causing conflict. Other mentioned problem areas related to differences in language and work management styles and communication difficulties between mission control personnel and their support teams. Nechaev et al. (2007) surveyed 11 cosmonauts in order to gain their perspective of psychological issues that might affect crews on an expedition to Mars. Factors seen as potentially causing problems included isolation and monotony, communication delays with the Earth due to the long distances involved, leadership issues, differences in management style among the involved space agencies, and cultural problems related to the international makeup of the crew. Sandal and Manzey (2009) surveyed 576 ESA employees and found a connection between cultural diversity and human interaction challenges that could interfere with work efficiency. Stuster (2010) performed a content analysis of personal journals from ten ISS astronauts. Subjects acknowledged organization and management problems as being important factors during their missions.

In two studies of 30 astronauts and cosmonauts and 186 mission control personnel who participated in Mir and ISS missions, it was found that crewmembers scored higher in cultural sophistication than mission control personnel (Kanas 2015; Kanas et al. 2000, 2001, 2007; Boyd et al. 2009). Americans reported significantly more work pressure than Russians in both studies and less tension during ISS missions. Both national and space agency organizational factors were implicated in accounting for these differences.


A person’s culture affects his or her language, and language differences in space can influence crewmember interactions. For example, astronaut Norm Thagard commented that he felt socially and culturally isolated during his Mir mission and that this was related to the fact that he was the only native English speaker on-board. His fellow cosmonaut crewmembers were Russian, and Thagard sometimes went up to 72 h without speaking to someone in his native language (Benson 1996). Astronauts have stated that conversational language training is important in missions involving international crews (Santy et al. 1993).

Language issues have been found to affect crewmember interactions during space analog studies on Earth. For example, language differences were implicated in the group disintegration that was observed during the SFINCSS project (Gushin and Pustinnikova 2001). Although English was the official language, it was not native for some of the participants. The lack of pre-mission language training, along with differences in communication styles, also interfered with effective communication between one of the isolated groups and outside personnel monitoring the experiment.

In their survey of 54 astronauts and cosmonauts who had flown in space, Kelly and Kanas (1992) found that all of the respondents acknowledged that it was important for space crewmembers to be fluent in a common language. Astronauts scored significantly higher than cosmonauts on a scale rating the importance of a common language, and pilots and commanders scored significantly higher than researchers. This last finding may have reflected the concern of pilots and commanders that people communicate clearly while performing tasks of vital operational importance. In terms of dialect, international astronauts participating in US missions rated the importance of speaking a common dialect significantly lower than their American and Russian counterparts. Since most of the internationals were European, they may have been exposed to more languages in their lifetime and were accustomed to linguistic variations. Crew communication was judged to be enhanced by a sense the respondents had of undergoing a shared common experience during their space missions.

Peeters and Sciacovelli (1996) have pointed out that native language is not the only linguistic issue related to space missions. Astronauts and cosmonauts also must be familiar with the specialized space terminology that is used during a mission, and even this can vary. For example, NASA space terminology is derived from basic English and includes a set of synonyms, acronyms, and neologisms related to this language. In contrast, Russian space terminology has a different set of linguistic parameters, and so on for other languages. But there also are commonalities, and for some the space language is easier to master than a non-native language. It is possible that in time a universal space language will evolve that will transcend the peculiarities of any single national language.

Family Issues

Astronauts have commented that a major issue for them is the well-being of their family back home. Family members on Earth should be supported while their loved ones are in space. This can include family briefings and conferences, peer-led support groups, and individual counselling sessions as needed. Such support can not only benefit families, but it can put crewmembers at ease so that they can concentrate on their mission.

Real-time contact with family members and friends on Earth is important for space crewmembers during near-Earth missions. In their questionnaire survey of 54 astronauts and cosmonauts, Kelly and Kanas (1993) found that respondents rated the value of contact with loved ones on Earth as having a significantly positive influence on their performance. Long-duration space travelers rated this item higher than those spending less than 20 days in space. Several subjects mentioned the need to have private space-ground audio-visual links available for crewmembers to talk with their family and friends. Similar results from Antarctica were reported by Palinkas et al. (2000a), who found that support provided by contact with family and friends back home was more important for stabilizing mood and performance than support available from on-site colleagues.

Johnson (2013) qualitatively analyzed a number of oral histories, preflight interviews, and journal entries of astronauts participating in Skylab, Mir, and ISS missions to assess their views of the roles of NASA, the astronauts themselves, and their families in helping to create a daily life that mirrored aspects of life on Earth. She concluded that NASA’s role is to schedule worthwhile activities in space and to facilitate communication between the astronauts and the ground; the astronaut’s role is to personalize leisure time, connect looking out the window with specific aspects of life on Earth, make daily on-orbit routine fun, and celebrate traditions and historical space events; and the family’s role is to participate in two-way communication with the astronauts and to send them personalized care packages via resupply ships with treats and reminders of home.

One important issue is how to inform astronauts and cosmonauts of bad news involving their family. During a Salyut 6 flight, mission control delayed telling one cosmonaut about the death of his father until he returned to Earth, fearing that the news would negatively affect his performance (Oberg 1981). In their survey of astronauts and cosmonauts, Kelly and Kanas (1993) reported that 18 respondents were of the opinion that negative personal information (such as a death in the family) should be withheld until a space traveler completes the mission, whereas another 22 stated that it should not be withheld. Five additional respondents gave no clear opinion. A reasonable compromise is for mission support personnel to discuss this issue with each astronaut or cosmonaut before launch in order to assess his or her personal preference regarding disclosure. When disclosed, bad news from home should be tempered with support and should be delayed until after the completion of a critical mission activity. Support strategies also need to be available on-board, such as counselling and sedative medication if needed.

Interpersonal Problems and Crewmember Interactions

The above issues can affect an individual crewmember in a variety of ways. For example, feelings of isolation or the death of a family member can cause an astronaut or cosmonaut to become homesick or clinically depressed, and this will influence his or her ability to participate in the mission. But poor crewmember interactions can both produce additional interpersonal problems and reflect the presence of such problems, as will now be discussed.

Interpersonal Tension and Lack of Cohesion

Crew cohesion can be influenced by a number of factors, such as the selection of a compatible group, proper training that allows crews to become a well-functioning team, and positive events that bind crewmembers together, such as meal time and holiday parties. But factors causing group tension can lessen cohesion in groups working in isolated and confined environments, leading to maladaptive or decreased interactions. In some cases, tension can increase as crewmembers become tired of one another during a long-duration mission. For example, during his 211-day Salyut 7 mission, Lebedev (1988) wrote in his diary that over time, he and his fellow crewmember became tired of each other, and little things like physical and verbal mannerisms that were charming at the beginning became sources of tension that irritated the two men later in their mission.

In other cases, tension is high from the beginning. For example, in a study of seven men and women participating in a 3-week Arctic scientific expedition, Palinkas et al. (1995) reported significantly higher tension levels prior to the start of the mission than during the mission itself, when the crewmembers finally became able to adapt to each other. In a 135-day Mir space station simulation study on Earth, Kanas et al. (1996) found significantly more tension in the crew prior to entering the simulator than after the mission began. Interestingly, they also found significantly less tension during the last half of the simulation than during the first half, but this was felt to be due to extraneous factors rather than time effects. For example, during a planned mid-mission resupply event, the crew received replacement computer parts, favorite foods, and letters from home which improved morale and cohesion.

Privacy, Withdrawal, and Territorial Behavior

People living and working in small isolated groups need to have time away from each other, and private space should be available in space vehicles. This space need not be large, just enclosed so that a person perceives it as a retreat from the pressure of being with other people all the time.

Extreme need for privacy, however, can be due to interpersonal conflicts. For example, in his diary Lebedev (1988) described separating from his fellow crewmate for long periods of time, and he felt that this helped to reduce interpersonal stress. The cosmonauts worked together on mission-related activities, but they chose to separate from each during free time. Intra-crew withdrawal also has been observed in space analog environments (Haythorn and Altman 1963; Vaernes 1993).

In its extreme, withdrawal can result in territorial behavior, where people become overly sensitive to the need for their own personal space and property and where arguments can result from minor intrusions. For example, borrowing someone’s pen or sitting in “their” chair can result in outrage and even physical altercation. Such behavior may lead to major disruptions in performance.

Subgrouping and Scapegoating

Another group tension-related issue is subgrouping, where crewmembers segregate along social, national, or job-oriented lines. Some subgrouping is normal, since people like to associate with others based on common interests, hobbies, and background. But if the subgroups become exclusive and do not interact at least part of the time, it sets up the potential for misunderstandings and miscommunications that can negatively affect the mission.

In its extreme, subgrouping may reflect deep divisions in a group of people and destroy their ability to perform as a unit. For example, during the 12-man International Biomedical Expedition to the Antarctic (Rivolier et al. 1991; Taylor 1991), subgroups formed along national lines. This resulted in tension, characterized by crewmember irritability, aggressiveness, competition, and lack of mutual concern. In Biosphere 2 (Walford et al. 1996), the eight-person crew divided into two competing factions (each composed of two men and two women) that did not relate well with each other. Palinkas et al. (2000b) described a pattern of subgrouping in the Antarctic where crewmembers formed cliques based upon where in the station they spent most of their leisure time. They termed these the “biomed,” “library,” and “bar” subgroups.

Sometimes, one person can be blamed or scapegoated when a group of people cannot resolve issues that lead to intragroup tension. Typically, this is a person who is most unlike the other crewmembers based on demographic or personality traits. This person is “set up” to become the scapegoat, especially if he or she espouses unpopular ideas. This also can occur if only one person from a characteristic subgroup is in a crew (e.g., one woman, one American, one scientist).

In isolated and confined environments, a scapegoated individual who is excluded from the group may experience a syndrome that in polar missions has been called the “long-eye” phenomenon (Rohrer 1958). A person affected by this syndrome may stare off into space and experience insomnia, depression, agitation, and psychotic symptoms (e.g., auditory hallucinations, persecutory delusions). These characteristics of the long-eye phenomenon may be transient and disappear once the excluded person is accepted back into the group. Scapegoating of an unpopular individual occurred during the International Biomedical Expedition to the Antarctic (Rivolier et al. 1991; Taylor 1991), and it also has been reported during hyperbaric chamber isolation studies (Gushin et al. 1998).


One way of relieving group tension and improving cohesion is to direct interpersonal stress away from the group. People working for long periods of time in isolated and confined conditions may displace tension from their “in-group” to a convenient “out-group” that is more distant and less able to retaliate. Many people experience this phenomenon at the individual level when they get angry with their boss but cannot confront him or her directly. They then go home and yell at innocent bystanders, such as a spouse or neighbor. Although offering temporary release of emotions, such displacement does little to resolve tension in the long run and can produce miscommunication and additional conflict.

There have been reports from space analog studies that isolated individuals can become irrationally angry at people monitoring their behavior, especially during tense times when intra-crew anger is not expressed openly between the confined crewmembers (Dunlap 1965; McDonnell Douglas 1968; Jackson et al. 1972). Behavior suggestive of displacement also occurred during the 60-day EXEMSI space simulation project (Vaernes 1993) and during a 135-day Mir simulation study (Kanas et al. 1996). This suggests that what is happening is a transfer of group tension and negative emotions to safer, more remote individuals on the outside.

Based on a review of early space analog studies, Kanas and Feddersen (1971) predicted that displacement would occur in space crews. As missions became longer and crews became more diverse, post-return debriefings and crewmember diaries suggested that this was indeed the case, with crews experiencing intragroup tension and displacing it outwardly to mission control. This led to crew-ground problems in communication that impacted negatively on the mission (Cooper 1976; Belew 1977; Lebedev 1988; Linenger 2000).

The notion of displacement has received empirical support during on-orbit missions. In two large international studies of 30 astronauts and cosmonauts and 186 mission control personnel who were involved with several Mir and ISS missions, evidence was found for the displacement of negative emotions from the crewmembers to mission control personnel (Kanas 2015; Kanas et al. 2000, 2001, 2007; Boyd et al. 2009). This was tested by predicting a negative relationship between six subscales measuring on-board tension and negative emotions and a subscale measuring perceived lack of support from mission control. All six of the predicted correlations were statistically significant and in the predicted direction. Using versions of the same measures that were adapted for the Chinese subjects isolated in the Lunar Palace 1 space station simulator, Wu and Wang (2014) similarly found the same predicted correlations. Four of the relationships achieved statistical significance, one was borderline, and the last correlation was not significant but was in the predicted direction.

In Russia, Gushin and his colleagues studied cohesion and in-group/out-group conflicts in isolated and confined groups located both on the ground and in space using an analysis of speech patterns. They found that over time, the crewmembers showed decreases in the scope and content of their interpersonal communications and a filtering in what they said to outside personnel, which the investigators termed “psychological closing” (Gushin et al. 1997; Kanas et al. 2009). Sometimes this served to hide medical and psychological problems. The crewmembers tended to withdraw and became more egocentric, a process the investigators called “autonomization.” In a displacement-like manner, these factors resulted in some members of mission control being perceived negatively as opponents. The research team also found that crewmembers became more cohesive by spending time together (including joint birthday celebrations) (Gushin et al. 2001) and that the presence of subgroups and outliers (i.e., scapegoats) negatively affected group cohesion (Gushin et al. 1998).

By moving the focus of on-board problems to the outside, crewmembers may experience temporary relief. However, the source of the displacement may not be dealt with, allowing it to fester. In the long run, displacement may be harmful to crewmembers and affect their ability to interact with one another openly and productively during the remainder of the mission. Displacement also can cause maladaptive communications and hard feelings with mission control. It is better for crewmembers to identify the causes of group tension and to deal with them appropriately in order to resolve their emotional impact.

Inappropriate Leadership

Studies of isolated groups have suggested two major roles of the leader: the task role, which relates to making sure that the work of the mission is accomplished, and the support role, which consists of monitoring group morale and helping people who are having emotional problems (Kanas and Manzey 2008). These aspects of leadership may become especially important at different times. For example, during emergencies, the task role is crucial, whereas during monotonous periods, the support role becomes more relevant.

In two Mir and ISS studies, one team examined the impact of leadership role on group cohesion (Kanas 2015; Kanas et al. 2000, 2001, 2007; Boyd et al. 2009). It was predicted that subscale scores related to the task role and the support role of the leader (mission commander for the crewmembers, team leader for the mission control subjects) would correlate significantly with a group cohesion subscale. The investigators found both relationships for mission control subjects, but for the crewmembers only the support role of the leader significantly correlated with group cohesion. It was concluded that this was due to the small size of the crews (which contained only two or three permanent members), since in such small groups, each person was a task leader in his or her own specialty area (e.g., piloting, engineering). In their Lunar Palace 1 space station simulation study, Wu and Wang (2014) similarly found that the support role of the leader (but not the task role) correlated significantly with group cohesion. Again, the crew size was small (no more than three people at any one time). It is possible that in future space missions with larger crews, the task role of the identified leader will impact more strongly on crew cohesion.


It is important for space crews to have good interpersonal relationships and open channels of communication. Crewmember interactions can be affected by factors inherent in the mission itself, by individual differences, and by group issues related to culture and family. Good interactions can improve morale, well-being, and the accomplishment of mission goals. Poor interactions can lead to group tension, lack of cohesion, withdrawal and territorial behavior, subgrouping and scapegoating, displacement of negative affect to others, and improper use of leadership. By understanding these interactive issues and developing ways of selecting and training crewmembers to relate better with one another, the chances for mission success are improved, and space travelers can have a more positive experience during their journey.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychiatryUniversity of California, San FranciscoSan FranciscoUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • David F. Dinges
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychiatryUniversity of Pennsylvania, Perelman School of MedicinePhiladelphiaUSA