Feature Article

Individual differences in adaptation for space missions

Military psychologists support NASA's mission.

By Paul Bartone, Gerald P. Krueger, Robert R. Roland, Albert A. Sciarretta, Bjorn Helge Johnsen, Jarle Eid, and Jocelyn V. Bartone

An important risk area under the Behavioral Health and Performance (BHP) element of NASA's Human Research Program concerns astronaut adaptation to the isolated, confined and extreme (ICE) conditions of long-duration space missions (NASA, 2014). It is recognized that individuals vary in how well and fast they adapt both physically and mentally to spaceflight and other ICE environments. It is important to understand the nature and causes of these individual differences to inform selection, training and risk-mitigation strategies for long-duration missions.

All space missions entail unusual conditions that astronauts must adapt to, including isolation from family and friends; confinement in cramped, small spaces; and having to live and work in extreme environmental conditions where there is a constant danger of serious injury or death should critical equipment fail or supplies run out. These demands are expected to be substantially greater for astronauts on long-duration space exploration (LDSE) missions (NASA, 2015). Longer distances from Earth and coincident delays in communication will greatly increase one's sense of isolation. Crews will have to function more autonomously, without timely advice or practical assistance from Mission Control. Spaceships on LDSE missions will afford smaller living areas for astronauts, as more payload is needed for fuel and supplies. And exposure to environmental extremes will be greater and for longer time periods. It is critically important that astronauts on LDSE missions be able to adapt quickly and effectively to the range of ICE conditions they are likely to encounter. This evidence report examines the current state of knowledge on the nature and most likely causes of individual differences in cognitive and behavioral adaptation to spaceflight and other ICE environments, potential methods for qualifying and predicting such differences and possible mitigation strategies.


Part one of this project is a comprehensive review of the broad literature on psychosocial/behavioral adaptability. This allows us to identify the key conceptual issues and what is currently known regarding factors associated with individual differences in adaptability. The general review also leads to a conceptual model that integrates available studies and can guide future research endeavors.

Part two is a systematic review of the literature on adaptability in ICE environments. The review is being conducted in accord with standards presented by the PRISMA group (Moher, Liberati, Tetzlaff, Altman, & the PRISMA Group, 2009). Databases examined include PubMed, PsycINFO and EMBASE. Previous NASA BHP evidence reports and bibliographies are also being searched for relevant studies.

Part three is a series of operational interviews conducted with subject matter experts (SME; N = 10). Interviews are semistructured with SMEs responding to a series of questions related to adaptation in ICE environments. A thematic analysis of interview notes reveals most frequently mentioned factors related to individual adaptability. To date, four interviews have been completed.

Preliminary Results and Discussion

Figure 1. A model of individual adaptability.The general literature on adaptability is extensive, diverse and highly variable in approach and quality. Our review focuses on individual level studies of cognitive and behavioral adaptability. There are four main streams of research: (a) adaptability as task performance, (b) adaptability as changes in cognitive processing, (c) adaptability as coping and (d) adaptability as reacting to organizational change. In addition to conceptual inconsistencies, studies use widely different methods and measures of adaptability, making it difficult to form firm conclusions. A clear advance is provided by Ployhart and Bliese (2006), who represent adaptability as a general individual difference variable influenced by individual knowledge, skills, abilities and other personal characteristics (KSAOs), which in turn affect performance outcomes, often through mediating variables. A modified version of this model appears in Figure 1.

In this conception, stable internal qualities (KSAOs) influence general individual adaptability, also a relatively stable quality of individuals. Individual adaptability is composed of the eight factors identified by Pulakos, Arad, Donovan, and Plamondon (2000) in their empirical analysis of over 9,000 critical work incidents: (a) handling emergencies or crisis situations; (b) handling work stress; (c) solving problems creatively; (d) dealing with uncertain and unpredictable work situations; (e) learning new tasks, technologies and procedures; (f) interpersonal adaptivity; (g) intercultural adaptability; and (h) physically oriented adaptability. General adaptability can influence important outcomes (performance, health, well-being) directly or through mediating variables, such as coping strategies or social factors.

Across all the studies we reviewed, variables that show some evidence of influence on adaptability include cognitive ability (Allworth & Hesketh, 1999; Bell & Kozlowski, 2002, 2008; Griffin & Hesketh, 2004; Pulakos et al., 2000, 2002); conscientiousness (Griffin & Hesketh, 2004; Huang, Ryan, Zabel, & Palmer, 2014; Neal, Yeo, Koy, & Xiao, 2012; Shoss, Witt & Vera, 2012; Zhang, Zhou, Zhang, & Chen, 2012); achievement orientation (Pulakos et al., 2000, 2002); openness to experience or change (Griffin & Hesketh, 2003, 2004; Griffin et al., 2007; Shoss et al., 2012; Thoresen et al., 2004); self-efficacy (Griffin & Hesketh, 2003; Griffin et al., 2007); self-monitoring (Gwinner, Bitner, Brown, & Kumar, 2005); self-esteem (Wanberg & Banas, 2000); tolerance for ambiguity (Gwinner et al., 2005); service orientation (Gwinner et al., 2005); optimism (Wanberg & Banas, 2000); control (Wanberg & Banas, 2000); role clarity (Griffin et al., 2007); emotional stability (Griffin et al., 2007; Huang et al., 2014; Neal et al., 2012; Pulakos et al., 2002; Thoresen et al., 2004); extraversion (Blickle et al., 2011); mastery orientation (Bell & Kozlowski, 2002, 2008; Chai, Zhao, & Babin, 2012; Kozlowski et al., 2001); hardiness (Bartone, in press; Bartone, Kelly, & Matthews, 2013); political skill (Blickle et al., 2011); and gender (women are more adaptable; O'Connell et al., 2008).

The many inconsistencies across studies are due in part to different conceptualizations of adaptability, different measures and methods used and the neglect of potential moderating and mediating variables to include contextual factors. Future studies should be guided by clearly articulated models (e.g., Figure 1), more consistent measures and more attention to possible interaction and mediating effects.

The systematic literature review on adaptability in ICE environments is in process. Early results point to the importance of social or interpersonal adaptability—the ability and willingness to adjust one's own behaviors and get along with others. This is also related to self-awareness, and the ability to control or manage one's emotions and behaviors in a variety of situations.

Findings from the initial round of operational interviews confirm a number of factors identified in the literature reviews. Important qualities contributing to adaptability include self-awareness; control (both self-control and the generalized expectation that one can influence outcomes); social awareness and the ability to get along with others (team-player, nondefensive); the ability to change roles when needed; optimism; commitment; and personal competence or self-efficacy. Also frequently mentioned was the ability to stay calm under stress and remain focused in high-pressure situations, which is related to self-control. Past experiences with situations requiring change are seen as valuable for developing adaptability, as is openness to new experiences and different ways of doing things. Social factors that can impact individual adaptability on LDSE missions include “connectedness” with Earth, home and family, and support from coworkers and the organization (e.g., ground control and NASA). Complete results and recommendations will be presented in the final report.

This is a preliminary project report based on a poster presented at the NASA Human Research Program Investigators' Workshop, Galveston, Texas, Feb. 9, 2016. Project funding is from NASA: NNJ16HP03I. View the 2016 program.

For further information, please contact Paul T. Bartone.

Figure 1. A model of individual adaptability.



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