In snowy Greenland, a search for the perfect astronaut

Dr. Gloria Leon studies groups of people in isolation to gauge the compatibility of astronaut teams.

Dr. Gloria Leon poses for a portrait on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016 at Elliott Hall.

Chris Dang

Dr. Gloria Leon poses for a portrait on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016 at Elliott Hall.

Melissa Steinken

From above, an isolated military base in Greenland — 800 kilometers from the nearest village and cloistered by mounds of snow — appears to be teeming with activity.

“If you see it from the air, you would think it is five hundred people living there, but it is only five,” said Aalborg University Psychology student Jesper Corneliussen.

Dr. Gloria Leon — a retired University of Minnesota Professor Emerita in psychology — works to analyze the interpersonal interactions of military personnel at Station Nord, a Danish military base in northeastern Greenland. Her research sheds light on the way astronauts interact during long, confined space missions.

At the station, Leon assesses the impact that personality, cultural factors and anti-stress methods have on small teams coexisting in extreme environments. Her work has been used by NASA when sending teams to space.

Leon last visited the station in July, and she has spent the time since poring over biweekly evaluations the five members of Station Nord are required to fill out which chronicle their positive and negative moods among other criterion.

She said results show that Danish astronaut teams are comprised of adventure-seekers, but NASA candidates only need to be psychologically healthy.

“If you get people that are not at the extreme in personality characteristics,” she said. “Then those people will get along together.”

Leon’s work at Station Nord was approved by the University’s Institutional Review Board, but currently isn’t funded by the University; instead she pays to continue her studies.

For space missions, she believes NASA should encourage space-borne astronauts to use virtual reality and computer therapy programs to fight feelings of depression and anxiety that come from isolation in space.

Corneliussen said Station Nord provided a chance to study small team isolation for a period of two years; military members must stay at the base year-round to hold Danish claims to the land, and typically only get one month of vacation.

“Guys are not only confined, but restricted due to the extreme cold”, Leon said.

Leon said conditions on the base could mirror conditions aboard a NASA spaceship, with low light and isolation from family.

“Conflicts between guys can get more intense because they’re in an isolated environment like this,” Corneliussen said. “They can’t get away, can’t get rid of their frustration.”

Leon, now 81, started advising NASA in the late 1980s when she joined an advisory committee on the Shuttle-Mir Program — a collaborative program between Russia and the United States.

Throughout her expansive career, Leon has studied eating disorders and evaluated research proposals for NASA. She also researched the psychological effects of power plant workers at Chernobyl, and delved into stress-related issues among Holocaust survivors.

“One of the biggest challenges was getting a visa to go to Russia,” she said. “It took a lot of time, especially when it was the Soviet Union.”

Despite retirement, Leon continues to help academics conduct space studies, many of whom work independently from NASA. Leon also mentored Crystal Compton, a research assistant for the University’s College of Design Wearable Technology Lab, who worked on developing skintight, liquid-cooling spacesuits that better regulate astronauts’ body temperatures.

“[Leon] is a really great lady and I really enjoy working with her,” she said. “She’s done so much work related to space exploration.”