BALTIMORE — When NASA selects astronauts to travel to Mars sometime after 2030, they will need a small crop of candidates who are smart, skilled – and personable.

For a voyage almost 34 million miles one way, the astronauts will need to work well together in an isolated and uncomfortably tight environment, as well as cope with boredom and the continuous company of the same tiny group of people.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins University recently won a NASA grant to help the nation’s space agency develop a method of sorting elite candidates, identifying those who are also amiable people persons, for space missions that could last three years. Grouchy, moody types who value personal space probably will not be good candidates. Ditto chatty individuals who need lots of outside social interaction.

“NASA is already really good at picking people,” said Michael Rosen, a Hopkins psychologist who is leading the effort. “But they’ll need to be better.”

The project is one of 11 NASA grants awarded to 10 institutions sharing in about $5.7 million in funding to investigate astronaut health and performance on future space missions over the next two or three years. The studies will add to what officials already know about the mental and physical health of astronauts. Under the new grants, researchers are envisioning new or worsening problems: Missions to Mars, and even far flung asteroids, would take substantially longer than the 18 months or so astronauts now can spend on the International Space Station. They will have less room, no escape pod and far less communication with Earth. It will take more than 20 minutes for communications to reach mission control.

The results are expected to help NASA not only pick the right astronauts, but help preserve their health while they’re in space and after they return home, according to NASA officials. The results also could help develop treatments and preventive measures for medical and behavioral problems.

None of these astronauts, however, are available for testing because most eventually chosen for the trip to the Red Planet are likely still in high school. Researchers say they will use their own research and the work of others, conduct interviews, utilize simulators and employ stand-ins.

One project will study workers in a remote marine research station in Antarctica. It will look at what measures are necessary to counter the inevitable stress, fatigue and conflict experienced in space. Workers there will do a combination of cycling and playing a type of video game during their stays of up to 14 months, according to Dr. Mathias Basner, associate professor of sleep and chronobiology in psychiatry in the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.

At the University of Central Florida, C. Shawn Burke, a research scientist in the Institute for Simulation and Training, will work on ways that crews from different countries can handle cultural differences. She will develop training programs for astronauts before they travel and mechanisms they can employ if a conflict arises.


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