Space Jam: Team Chemistry Counts Beyond the Stars

By Ed Moorhouse

Crews of the International Space Station find themselves many miles from their homes for weeks at a time.

Crews of the International Space Station find themselves many miles from their homes for weeks at a time.

Imagine being stuck in an apartment with a roommate you don’t get along with, only you can’t leave, even for just a few hours.

If it sounds unbearable, just think of what it must be like for space station crews who live with each other — and put up with the good and the bad — many miles above the Earth.

“They’re in isolation and there’s no out,” says Chester Spell, a professor of management at the Rutgers School of Business–Camden.

Crews of the International Space Station find themselves many miles from their homes for weeks at a time. According to NASA, the crews, consisting of three to six astronauts, typically stay in space for about 5½ months. By studying various records and accounts from the International Space Station’s 44 missions, Spell and three research colleagues from Santa Clara University found details on conflicts that typically arise among crew members.

“They are seemingly mundane things, no different than the conflicts two people would confront in everyday life,” he says, giving arguments over food or music as two examples.

Cultural and generational differences may cause some disagreements, too, and each conflict, Spell says, “has an impact on the crews’ ability to do an effective job.”

Predictably, that’s not a good thing in any work setting, let alone space.

The Rutgers–Camden scholar, whose previous research in this area studied the long-term implications for the mental health of employees working in isolation — think Matt Damon in The Martian — says space station crews are put together based on who is most qualified for the tasks at hand.

Chester Spell

Chester Spell

“But there is also a human component,” Spell explains. “These people aren’t robots. They have to be able to work together. If you have the right mix of people, you minimize that.”

It isn’t much different than, say, putting together a successful baseball or basketball team. Spell’s expertise is in organizational behavior, and his widely-published work includes an algorithm that quantifies team chemistry.

“It comes down to the numbers game. It seems that homogeneous subgroups of people are important for good crew dynamics,” he says.

These subgroups are known as faultlines, when group members align along one or more demographic characteristics. The best professional sports teams, Spell says, include the right mix of age, tenure, nationality, and race.

It turns out that’s just as true in space as it is on a baseball field.

But what’s the trick to avoid a conflict in space if the group dynamic can’t be changed? The best advice might be to simply “phone home,” as E.T. would insist.

“They have to emphasize opportunities to talk to people back home when they can,” Spell says. “Finding a different social interaction, even if it’s at a distance, can minimize conflict.”

The Rutgers University–Camden scholar recently presented his study, “Effects of Crew Mix in Long Duration Space Expeditions,” at the annual meeting of the American Society for Gravitational and Space Research, held in Alexandria, Va. in November.

The society brings together a diverse group of scientists and engineers to exchange ideas bridging science research and technology in space and on the ground.

A Maple Shade resident and Georgia native, Spell’s research focuses on employee health and wellness and how organizations respond to those issues. His research has been widely cited in top scholarly and professional journals worldwide.

Spell has presented research on the mental health implications of working in a lunar settlement during a Rutgers symposium on lunar settlements.

His research has also investigated organizational justice and employee mental health; employee substance abuse programs; and the alignment of employer and employee interests to improve behavioral health.

His team chemistry algorithm — by which the last two World Series winners scored among the highest — was featured in ESPN the Magazine, and he has presented his research on the topic to NBA coaches and executives.

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