Mars. What a hold it has had on our imaginations. From H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds,” to the ghost inhabited planet of Ray Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles,” to the NASA-inspired film “The Martian,” in theaters this October, we never seem to lose our fascination with the Red Planet. In fact, people are willing to risk everything to be Martian pioneers, and a Cary-based company helps NASA evaluate applicants who make it to the final group considered for potential deep space missions of long duration.

Horizon Performance developed an innovative process for selecting the class of astronauts NASA will train for deep space missions. It uses a program called Gideon[Soft] originally developed by the company for the Military Special Operations selection and training units.

In fact, says Jat Thompson, Horizon Performance founder and president, the company’s connections to military and other government contractors led to the NASA job. “We work a lot with government elite special ops units and it’s a small community with a lot of overlap between different ones,” says Thompson.

Early use of mobile devices

The company, founded in 2003, was awarded an SBIR grant to enhance Gideon[Soft] to evaluate astronaut performance and team cohesion in deep space flight in 2009. The original grant focused on software for BlackBerry devices but as the mobile market has dynamically changed over the past four years, the project shifted to developing for Android devices.

There were a number of obstacles that made shifting to mobile devices a challenge such as raters feeling comfortable using mobile device instead of paper, glare and wet conditions. The team came up with creative ways to overcome these issues.

The upside to using the mobile devices was the real time electronic data entry which allowed for faster and more effective performance analysis. Decision makers were able to utilize results more rapidly, accurately and with less manpower than with a paper version of the evaluations

NASA received a whopping 6,100 applications from people willing to spend months or years in space, but whilttled the group down to 50 for Horizon Performance to help get to the eight NASA finally chose, says Thompson.

Soft skills evaluated

By the time Horizon came into the picture, they had already been evaluated on other factors, including physical liabilities, and it’s job was to look at their “soft skills,” says Thompson. It evaluated such things as their ability to work with a team, their interpersonal skills, the types of things that often go “unmeasured,” Thompson notes.

If you’re going to have to spend time with a group of others in a cramped and confining space for months or years – you need to be able to work with others with a minimal amount of friction. Horizon looked at various previous and ongoing experiments in underwater and Antarctic research labs and the way small teams work in special ops.

Even little things such as the slight difference in the length of a Martian day (40 minutes longer than Earth’s) can impact performance, Thompson says, noting, “We have only recently realized how important sleep is to your performance.”

Thompson, an organizational psychologist, says Horizon Performance has and does also work with sports teams, the border patrol and the Army Green Berets.

First step: definitions

Often, the first step in developing effective evaluations, Thompson says, is defining precisely what they’re looking for. A football team may be looking for something it calls “toughness” in players for instance. “A lot of teams we work with have rich, deep language around the technical side of sports. How you hold your elbow when you throw a football. How do you take the same approach to the soft side, the fuzzy side? You nee dto deconstruct it to specific behaviors.”

“First, you define the critical tasks of the job. Mental toughness might mean the ability to stay focused for long periods of time while studying game film or the ability to be fatigued in a game and still make accurate decisions,” he explains. Oten, the mentality of coaches is that if something is wrong, “We’ll fix them,” says Thompson.

But “You’re not going to have room for mistakes on Mars,” he adds, so “You have to be careful who you select.”

The bootstrapped company has never been in the venture funding game and isn’t looking. “We do this all on our own dime,” Thompson says.

NASA will select another batch of astronaut candidates in January, and Thompson says Horizon Performance expects to be part of the evaluation process again.