The isolation and long travel times of space missions can cause breakdowns in thinking and reasoning with even the best of teams, compromising mission objectives and the safety of crew members.

That’s why researchers at the University of Central Florida are spearheading a new, recently funded project to improve the cognition of team members for future space missions.

The project will examine how decreases in cognition — memory, reasoning and problem solving — at the individual level could cascade to the team level and impact team performance, particularly in complex environments relevant to space missions.

The researchers also will examine interventions to counteract potential decreases in team performance, including developing training and technologies such as artificial-intelligence-based assistants.

The three-year, $990,000 project will be led by UCF Cognitive Sciences Professor Stephen Fiore and is funded by the U.S. Department of Defense through the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. The researchers will begin their work in August.

They will use cutting-edge approaches, such as their Smart Machine-Assisted Responsive Tangible Space, or SMART, room that is equipped with cameras and sensors, which will help the researchers understand how changes in body movement and physiology are related to collaboration. This SMART room capability is based upon research conducted by co-investigator, Joseph Kider, who uses sensor technology for smart buildings. Kider is an assistant professor in UCF’s School of Modeling, Simulation, and Training.

By understanding how observable changes in the team influence problem solving, the researchers can identify what parts of the interactions signal problems. These social signals become targets for technology interventions that can improve collaborative cognition, Fiore says.

Part of the work will also include analyzing recorded, close-call spaceflight events from NASA archives to understand conditions that led to the problems and the collaboration challenges astronauts and mission control faced.

Co-investigators on the project Florian Jentsch and Shawn Burke have previously used historical records of teams to identify interactions targeted for training or technology interventions. Jentsch is department chair and a professor in UCF’s Psychology Department, and Burke is a research professor with UCF’s School of Modeling, Simulation, and Training.

“This research is going to be relevant to any team, not simply to teams in space,” Fiore says. “Important to teams in space, though, is ways to overcome limitations in problem solving.”

These limitations could include lack of access to more people for additional insight or to technology that could aid decision-making, Fiore says.

“Here on Earth, when we solve problems, we have access to many ways to support our cognition,” Fiore says. “When it comes to space missions, though, they can’t take everything with them. We need to understand how to design the technologies needed when their cognitive and collaborative capabilities are limited.”

The award is through the Department of Defense’s Minerva Research Initiative to support research in social and behavioral science. The initiative supports basic research that focuses on topics of particular relevance to U.S. national security. Seventeen university-based faculty teams from around the country received funding this year.

“We live in a dynamic world, and many of the challenges we face are social or have social elements to them,” says Bindu Nair, director, Basic Research Office in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering in a recent news release announcing the funding awards. “The knowledge and methodologies generated from Minerva awardees have improved DoD’s ability to define sources of present and future conflict with an eye toward better understanding the political trajectories of key regions of the world.”

Fiore is the director of UCF’s Cognitive Sciences Laboratory and is a professor with the UCF’s Cognitive Sciences Program in the Department of Philosophy—part of the College of Arts and Humanities — and with the School of Modeling, Simulation, and Training. He received his doctorate in cognitive psychology from the University of Pittsburg and joined UCF in 1998.