Surface of Mars

Investigating Leadership for Crewed Missions to Mars – The eMBA Papers

Author’s Note: This is a series of papers that I have written for my eMBA degree.


Humankind once again sits at the precipice of crewed exploration of another terrestrial world. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has been diligently at work, methodically testing prototypes of the Starship Heavy Launch System that will thrust crew, habitat, and equipment on a perilous journey to the red planet (SpaceX, n.d.). At the same time, NASA has been hard at work on the Artemis Lunar Exploration Program which has set the goal of a crewed mission to the Lunar surface by 2024 (NASA, 2020). Jeff Bezos’s venture, Blue Origin, is holding an auction to be on their first crewed mission to low Earth orbit in July. The current bid stands at a reasonable $2.8 million USD (Blue Origin, 2021). Virgin Galactic has just begun its final series of test flights for the certification of the Unity flight system, another space-tourism effort led by Sir Richard Branson (Amos, 2021). 

Theodore Roosevelt : The Conservation Of Natural Resources (1907) | U.S.  Embassy & Consulate in the Republic of Korea

There is little use for the being whose tepid soul knows nothing of the great and generous emotion, of the high pride, the stern belief, the lofty enthusiasm, of the men who quell the storm and ride the thunder.

Theodore Roosevelt, “Citizenship in a Republic”, Paris, France, April 23, 1910 

I believe the risks I take are justified by the sheer love of the life I lead.

Charles Lindbergh (Landon, 2021) 

Research Question 

In the next decade, crewed space missions are set to become everyday occurrences. To get to Mars, people will embark on a long-duration exploration mission (LDEM) in an isolated, confined, extreme (ICE) environment. These missions will operate with small specialist crews of 5-6 members (Seedhouse, 2009). On LDEMs there are many risks and a high likelihood of mission failure, resulting in astronaut accident or death. What are the characteristics of effective leadership in these contexts, particularly when presented with extreme events? How do teams currently approach training for ICE-LDEM? Can we use a conceptual understanding of Leadership in Extreme Contexts to inform training methods for astronauts? 

Hannah et al.’s “Framework for Leadership in Extreme Contexts (LEC)” provides an initial model to understand the dimensions and considerations for LEC. This model advises that attenuators in extreme events can greatly sway the outcome of the event. Dixon and Weeks build on Hannah’s model to further value emotional intelligence and self-awareness that help leaders in sensemaking and sensegiving. These models can partially advise selection and training of astronauts and can be reconciled with current training practices.   

The Journey to and from Mars 

The journey to Mars contains a multitude of extreme risks. Mission designs extend from 18 months to 3 years or longer. The journey involves risks such as increased radiation exposure; a 3-year mission equates to a lifetime of radiation exposure on Earth. Extended periods of time in zero gravity wreak havoc on the body, a problem that currently hasn’t been overcome. Some estimates put the journey to Mars on the same level of risk as being a lumberjack for 14 years or being a New York firefighter on September 11. These types of environments represent a context where there is a latent threat to presence within the environment. Leadership in these situations represents Leadership in Extreme Contexts (LEC). (Hannah et al., 2009; Seedhouse, 2009; Pryor et al., 2021)  

Hannah’s Extreme Contexts 

Context has a significant impact on leadership. Hannah defines an extreme context as a situation where one or more extreme events are occurring or have potential to occur.  Extreme events comprise events that dramatically impact the well-being of the team and its efficacy. With this definition we can look at the crew in route to the Red Planet as having to exist in an extreme context. Hannah describes extreme contexts as having dimensions of timing, magnitude and probability of consequences, physical or psycho-social consequences, and particulars about the threat itself.  The “extremeness” of extreme contexts can be lessened through attenuators or made more extreme by intensifiers. These dimensions, minus the effects of the attenuators, magnified by the effect of the intensifiers leads to a level of extremity that leadership must exist in. (Hannah et al., 2009) 

Using’s Hannah’s definition we can see that in the space capsule to Mars, we are looking at a context that exists for several years and has fatal consequences that have an elevated probability of occurring. Those threats are mostly physical in nature and can take many forms ranging from radiation sickness to rapid decompression of the crew capsule (Seedhouse, 2009). Through skilful engineering and training the magnitude, probability, and forms of threats is reduced. Through training, leaders can build skills that serve as “attenuators” in extreme contexts. (Hannah et al., 2009) 

Dixon and Week’s In-Extremis Leadership 

Dixon and Weeks expand upon Hannah’s description of in extremis contexts and propose a conceptual model for how leaders can make sense of the extreme context and impart that schema to followers through “sensegiving”. Dixon and Week’s base their model off the literature for sensemaking, suggesting that factors such as situational awareness, self-efficacy, and emotional intelligence all contribute to the leader’s ability to make sense of the context and then lead the team to act with the data available. Where Hannah’s model examines the model of extreme environment, Dixon and Week’s model examines the behavioural model that succeeds in extreme environments.  

Dixon and Weeks conclude that people understand their environment through the schema they maintain and will make decisions based on the plausibility of their understanding and not on the accuracy of their understanding. This idea echoes Hannah’s findings that practice and confidence lead to better interpretation of the extreme context. By focussing on sensemaking as a foundational paradigm to astronaut training, we can better understand the context and home in our understanding of what attenuators will best help in an extreme event.  

Training Leadership for Crewed Mars LDEM 

Astronaut Selection and Training 

Astronaut leadership training is integrated seamlessly in astronaut training programmes. According to Galarza, while perseverance is typically useful, being able to make judgement calls from ambiguous and uncertain data proves to be more important in highly dynamic environments. In missions, there are multiple contexts where any team member should take on command and leadership of the crew. Training leadership for astronauts requires astronauts to correctly identify which contexts require followership and which require leadership.  (Galarza et al., 2021; Croitoru et al., 2021) 

Astronaut training typically begins up to 5 years before a potential mission. Astronauts are selected in a highly involved selection process that uses medical assessment, psychometrics, experience, and skills as primary selection criteria.  For psychometric selection, some selection criteria used are measures of emotional stability, conscientiousness, agreeableness, mental ability, extraversion, expressivity (Schmidt and Spychalski, 2021). In addition, some selection processes include observation in 1 week of team simulations as well as 1 week observation in isolation (Schmidt and Spychalski, 2021).  

NASA has classified missions to Mars as Type-C and Type-D missions. Type C missions involve up to one year in an ICE environment with one-way communication delay up to 10 minutes. Type D missions involve durations of up to 3 years and one-way communication delays up to 30 minutes. These technical constraints on the environment directly inform potential training and simulation content (Galarza et al., 2021).  Communication delays render normal real-time conversation unreliable. Delays can create different interpretation contexts, where one party’s experience of a conversation is different to the order of another parties, leading to misunderstanding and increased risk (Fischer and Mosier, 2021).   

Reconciling Hannah’s Extreme Context with Practice 

If we look at the actual practice of selection and training of astronauts, we can see that many components of Hannah’s Extreme Context model are directly addressed. Astronauts are trained to perform procedures in systematically varied contexts (Dempsey and Barshi, 2021). By training procedures in a different contexts, astronauts build a robust schema for sense-making during extreme events.  Building procedural awareness in a variety of contexts reduces the risk of threat and builds robust attenuators that can mitigate intensifiers. (Roma and Bedwell, 2021) 

Preparation, experience as a team, and a developed belief in team efficacy serve as a psychological attenuator. Astronaut training is a long-term effort that takes place over many years. The length of the training regimen provides an ample array of contexts the team experiences collectively.  This bolsters team self-identification which greatly increases the teams’ “affirmative” response to extreme contexts, which should lead to the team being more likely to navigate the extreme context safely. (Hannah et al., 2009) 

Reconciling Dixon and Week’s with Practice 

Astronauts are selected for emotional stability. Selection methodologies involve team simulations with unexpected circumstances so that scientists can observe the candidates using self-awareness, efficacy, and emotional intelligence to make use of their existing schema to make sense of the situation and then impart that to their team. Team members are stressed to ensure emotional intelligence under pressure.  

Procedural rehearsal in multiple contexts as illustrated before also helps to build a robust schema for sensemaking and sense giving to excel. Team members are highly generalised and trained to take one of many roles. This allows team members to not only make sense of their context, but also better understand team members’ contexts and deliver precise sensegiving information that can be of vital importance.  

Emotional Intelligence and LDEM 

For a long-term social environment, the effort of psychologically supporting astronauts’ mental health is a significant effort. For NASA, astronauts and their families are actively managed by the behavioural health and performance (BHP) operations group.  Astronauts lean heavily on psychological support services, and psychological support ranks as the fourth most common topic in astronaut to Earth communications. (Hughlett et. Al, 2021)    

BHP has only operated missions where there is no communication delay. By adding communication delay, the ability to provide emotional intelligence, sensemaking, and sensegiving becomes significantly more difficult.  In real-time the external BHP group functions as sensemakers and sensegivers in emotionally complex environments. With delayed communications the external BHP group can no longer serve as real-time sensemakers and sensegivers, offloading this capability to the isolated crew.   

The need for emotional intelligence in these situations requires trained, emotionally intelligent, and supportive leaders in the crew itself. Currently, only the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) is trained on missions to identify signs of emotional distress, and where appropriate provide counselling and/or treatment. Applying Dixon and Weeks model to the Mars mission exposes the need to build emotional intelligence for the entire isolated crew. Deliberate psychological training must be part of training for all crew members. Focussing EI training on just a single CMO exposes the group to heightened risk, provides a single point of EI failure, and potentially can overload the CMO in LDEM. (Sipes et al., 2021) 


The future of crewed space exploration is laden in risk. Crewed missions to Mars require leadership from every crew member in different contexts. Training astronauts to lead successfully in these environments is essential for mission continuity and success. Dixon and Week’s argument that situational awareness, emotional intelligence, self-efficacy mediate enhanced sensemaking and sensegiving which serves to align team members. Astronaut selection and training accomplishes growing situational awareness and self-efficacy through a systematic training of procedures in a variety of contexts. Training for emotional intelligence however is sparse and leverages an entire support team on earth. Trips to Mars will have significant communication delays which will require significant offloading of emotional intelligence leadership to the crew.   


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