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AAAS Meeting: Contractor Discusses Mars Travel

Contractor presented his work on team problem-solving and human systems integration for exploration of deep space

Preparing for a 45-day mock space mission as part of a study of teams. NASA photoPreparing for a 45-day mock space mission as part of a study of teams. NASA photo

Three Northwestern University faculty members including Northwestern Engineering’s Noshir Contractor presented their innovative research at the recent 2021 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The meeting, “Understanding Dynamic Ecosystems,” was held virtually last week.

Team problem-solving in space

Contractor discussed team problem-solving and human systems integration for exploration of deep space, such as travel to Mars. Contractor and Northwestern collaborator Leslie DeChurch, along with NASA researcher Suzanne Bell, have developed a computational model of crew relations using data from a dozen crews simulating long-distance space travel at NASA’s Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) and Russia’s NEK facilities to help NASA predict conflicts before they happen.

Noshir Contractor“We got pretty good at it,” Contractor said on February 10 during a AAAS press briefing. NASA challenged the team to come up with strategies to address the problems they could now predict.

“What we have been able to demonstrate is, not only can we predict like the weather forecasters do, but unlike the weather forecasters, we can actually fix the weather — we can fix relationships by predicting who is not going to get along and trying to find ways to mitigate against that,” he said.

Contractor discussed the predictive power of the model and researchers’ ability to anticipate and mitigate relations by re-pairing crew members on assigned tasks during the simulated mission.

His presentation was part of the scientific session “Understanding and Enabling Human Travel to the Moon and Mars,” moderated by DeChurch, Northwestern professor of communication and psychology and director of the ATLAS lab: Advancing Teams, Leaders, and Systems.

Contractor, a complex systems expert, is the Jane S. and William J. White Professor of Behavioral Sciences in the McCormick School of Engineering, the School of Communication, and the Kellogg School of Management. He also is director of the Science of Networks in Communities (SONIC) research group at Northwestern.

In addition to Contractor, Linda Teplin, Owen L. Coon Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and director of the Health Disparities and Public Policy Program in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine, and Danna Freedman, professor of chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, also presented their work.

The AAAS meeting, with dozens of sessions exploring recent developments in science and technology, draws thousands of researchers, educators, journalists and science enthusiasts from around the world. AAAS is said to be the largest general scientific society in the world.