Grants totaling nearly $2M support Rice research of NASA training and selection process

Rice University psychology researchers will play a role in NASA’s future deep-space exploration, thanks to two new grants from the space agency totaling $1.8 million.

Eduardo Salas

Eduardo Salas

The researchers will help NASA streamline its astronaut selection and training process for long-term missions and aim to reduce human-performance risks associated with long-duration space exploration, according to Eduardo Salas, a principal investigator on both of the grants and the Allyn R. and Gladys M. Cline Chair and professor in psychology at Rice.

With the first grant, “Facilitating the Synergistic Side of Cultural Diversity in LDSE (Lunar and Deep Space Exploration): Identification of Challenges and Development of Cultural Training,” the researchers will:

  • Develop methods for understanding the life cycle and key threats for astronaut teams on autonomous, long-duration and/or distance exploration missions.
  • Identify countermeasures to support team function for all phases of the missions.
  • Identify psychological measures that can be used to select individuals most likely to maintain team morale and function during the missions.
  • Identify ground-based training methods that can help prepare teams for these types of missions and maintain their function for the duration.

“Given that existing training methods and models may inadequately prepare long-duration, autonomous crews to execute their mission, there is a risk that increased flight and ground crew errors and inefficiencies, failed mission and program objectives and increased crew injuries will occur,” Salas said.

He also noted that long-term, deep-space missions do not allow for assignment of new crew or rotation of crew to the ground for training. In addition, the delays in communication will have a disruptive effect on the ability of Earth-based flight controllers to monitor and support space operations in real time.

“As a result, it is essential to develop an understanding of how training can be tailored to better support long-duration, deep-space operations — including the extent to which materials, procedures and schedules of training should be modified,” Salas said.

The researchers will recruit six to eight teams of four people who possess the same type of skills required to be astronauts and study them over a three-year period. The participants will take part in experiments at the Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA), a NASA research venue for scientists to use in focusing on risks linked with human performance in space missions. The venue allows for the simulation of the isolation, confinement and remote conditions that astronauts experience during space missions.

The project will also include Mikki Hebl, the Martha and Henry Malcolm Lovett Chair of Psychology at Rice, and Shawn Burke, a research scientist at the University of Central Florida Institute for Simulation and Training.

With the second grant, “Developing and Validating Sensor-based Measurement Strategies for Team Member Selection,” the researchers will develop a method for identifying the training strategies, best practices and risk management necessary for success in long-term space mission and train prospective astronauts on these competencies.

The researchers will test and validate the selection system before handing it over to NASA.

“Selecting astronauts for LDSE missions poses unique challenges for NASA,” Salas said. “Candidates must be selected based on a new set of psychological and behavioral competencies that support effective performance in these extended and isolated missions. The candidates must also be able to understand differing perspectives and have the ability to listen, adapt or even change to do what is best for the mission. They also need a specific set of skills, attitudes and knowledge to succeed in this environment, and that’s information we hope to uncover throughout the course of this study.”

Salas noted that these types of missions require new measurement methods capable of discriminating between individuals at the “top of the curve” — the general astronaut population of highly motivated, intelligent and competent individuals. He said that he and his fellow researchers will develop a sensor-based measurement system to monitor individual activity in a simulated lunar and deep-space exploration environment.

“This sensor-based system will capture the performance of participants dynamically as they perform tasks in the experiment, which will then be evaluated by our research team,” Salas said.

The researchers will accomplish theses goals by studying over a three-year period six to eight teams of four people recruited by NASA. The participants will again take part in experiments in HERA at NASA.

The project will also include Fred Oswald, professor of psychology at Rice, and Mick Rosen, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Ultimately, Salas hopes that both research projects will improve the chances for long-term space missions and their success.

For more information on the grants, visit and

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.