Assembling an out-of-this-world dream team
As an undergraduate in the 1980s, Professor Noshir Contractor studied electrical networks, working to understand the relationship between current and resistance so he could become an electrical engineer.
But Contractor noticed that the burgeoning technology of the era — email, cellphones, satellite TV — centered on human social networks. He wanted to know more about these networks and about how bonds among people form, break and can be repaired.
“These networks have major consequences in terms of our individual and collective goals,” said Contractor said, the Jane S. & William J. White Professor of Behavioral Sciences.
As he studied social networks, Contractor found himself constantly surprised by the research. For example, having a large network isn’t as important as the diversity of our networks. And weak ties to other people can be even more important than our strongest ties.
Now, Contractor is the Jane S. & William J. White Professor of Behavioral Sciences at Kellogg and director of the SONIC Research Group at Northwestern, where his work on social networks focuses on how astronauts can better work together on long, isolated journeys in space.
For years, NASA has been ramping up the size of teams going to space. The organization began looking for people who could work well with others rather than simply those with expertise. NASA believed that team cooperation was important but saw that it was underresearched, leading to Contractor’s collaboration with NASA.
NASA set up facilities where people could be isolated in groups to study how group members work together, especially over long periods of time. Typically, this type of study lasts one to four months, but Contractor is currently observing a group on a 240-day mission. He and his colleagues observe these team members — their biofeedback, their sleep, how they feel about others on their team — to understand what happens to humans when they’re isolated with other people. How can they work well together even when cramped and confined?
Contractor and his colleagues used these observations to create a computer model that seems to improve after each mission, Contractor said, even with completely different groups of people. These models function as weather forecasting does, anticipating when two people on the team may not get along well.
Predictions are based on variables such as sleep, conscientiousness and time spent in space. Often, repairing a team dynamic or mitigating a potential problem can be as simple as pairing people with others on the team — re-pairing, as Contractor calls it.
While NASA has yet to put these models into play, Contractor said the organization now recognizes that team dynamics — especially with a mission to Mars in mind — are as consequential to space travel as exposure to radiation and loss of gravity.
Contractor and his research partners received a grant in 2021 to create a dashboard called TEAMSTaR for their computer model, which can predict with 80 percent accuracy how teams will work together. The goal of the dashboard is to help NASA build and manage teams for Artemis, an initiative to send people to the moon and eventually to Mars.
All of this is exciting and will have a huge impact, Contractor said. But what impact means to him is being able to bring his work down to Earth. NASA has a long history of inventing technology as useful on Earth as it is in space, such as the science behind LED lights and cordless drills. He hopes that organizations across the world can use this model to build successful, effective and long-lasting teams.
“My colleagues and I like to believe that our computational modeling forecasting platform to help predict team dynamics in extreme situations for Mars will have lots of payoffs back on Earth,” he said. “We are beginning to see organizations think about how we can use these tools to assemble dream teams.”
More in this series
- The many paths toward impact at Kellogg
- Widening the path to the American dream: Executive MBA student Jonathan Chaparro ’22
- A career pivot in pursuit of positive change: Evening & Weekend MBA student Christine Cornellier ’22
- A passion for building relationships: Full-Time MBA student Ashley Thurmond Abraham ’22