Effects of autonomous mission management on crew performance, behavior, and physiology: Insights from ground-based experiments

Peter G. Roma, Steven R. Hursh, Robert D. Hienz, Zabecca S. Brinson, Eric D. Gasior, Joseph V. Brady

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

6 Scopus citations


Technical constraints during long-duration space expeditions will limit the ability for Earth-based management of astronaut crews and will thus increase the prevalence of autonomous operations. To provide experimentally-derived insights on the effects of crew autonomy, we utilized a laboratory-based simulation model to assess crew performance effectiveness and biopsychosocial adaptation under rigid schedule-based management of crew activities by Mission Control versus more flexible, autonomous management of activities by the crews themselves. In 2 separate experiments, 33 research volunteers formed 11 long-term 3-person mixed-gender crews that were extensively trained over several months in an interdependent computer-based planetary surface exploration task. Following training, in Experiment 1, three crews each completed two different types of 3-4 h test missions: Scheduled missions, in which they were directed by Mission Control according to a strict topographic and temporal region-searching sequence, and Autonomous missions, in which the crews received minimal baseline support from Mission Control and were free to establish their own protocols for exploring the planetary surface. In Experiment 2, eight 3-person crews were trained in identical fashion as Experiment 1, except these crews were each tested under four different scenarios, with the Scheduled and Autonomous sessions completed either under normal conditions of full communications capabilities or following the unexpected loss of audio and text-messaging functions. Overall, autonomous mission management led to improved task performance (more high-valued geologic samples were retrieved), increased subjective self-reports of positive mood, fewer references to negative emotions, greater use of socially-referent language in unstructured debriefing logs, and attenuated physiological stress reactivity. Consistent with observational field research, these laboratory-based investigations provide powerful experimental evidence supporting a causal relationship between crew autonomy and improved performance, enhanced psychosocial adaptation, and sustained biobehavioral health. Future work should systematically examine interactions with culture and personality in diverse multinational crews, assess the effects of other operationally-relevant stressors such as heavy workload and circadian disruption, and evaluate the effects of bounded autonomy in space analogue environments and on the International Space Station using rigorous experimental methods. The controlled laboratory data presented herein contribute to an emerging empirical knowledge base on crew autonomy which the international astronautics community may build upon for future research and ultimately draw upon when designing and managing long-duration exploratory missions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationOn Orbit and Beyond
Subtitle of host publicationPsychological Perspectives on Human Spaceflight
PublisherSpringer Berlin Heidelberg
Number of pages22
ISBN (Electronic)9783642305832
ISBN (Print)9783642305825
StatePublished - Jan 1 2013

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Engineering(all)


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