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The I-Opener: Space!

Harrison Wojcik, University of Minnesota, and ./Steven Toaddy, Louisiana Tech University

Greetings and salutations I-Opener readers both old and new! For this issue of The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, Steven has been kind enough to extend his hand in partnership for the authoring of his column. Steven and I met this spring at the 2016 SIOP Conference in Anaheim, where we quickly realized we both had a propensity for the extra-terrestrial. Not the Spielbergian kind either—we’re talking about SPACE!, which is exactly what we (unbeknownst to each other at the time) wrote on the backs of our business cards. Today we’re going to blather on about why space is great and what’s going on in space research. We’ll end by giving you a couple of tips on how to get more involved.

If you find yourself thinking that you’re not an astronaut nor do you have any inclination toward space or related research, you’re not alone. The thing is, NASA has already changed your life for the better, without you even realizing it. Here is how it has changed mine: At 6:00 a.m. today I awoke to a familiar caustic tone as my phone buzzed and danced on my bedside table. As I rolled off my bed, I reached for my glasses out of habit before remembering that I had Lasik surgery 6 years ago. I turned off my horrendous phone alarm, checked the weather, then the traffic. Even as I dressed and slipped on my shoes, I was blissfully ignorant of how NASA funded the research and development behind the insoles in my shoes, the GPS satellites that let me check the weather and traffic, my eye surgery, and my memory-foam mattress. They may even someday invent a phone alarm that reliably wakes me up without instilling flashes of panic and rage. 

When it comes to I-O psychology, NASA research will likely inform how we think about teams, their composition, and how to maximize their performance under extreme conditions. Their discoveries aren’t just going to affect the function of teams or workers outside of the limits of Earth’s atmosphere either; the lessons already learned are components that fit into our understanding of human functioning in general. They have the potential to improve the way that we both research and practice various aspects of I-O. If you work in or around high-pressure teams, for instance, what NASA is doing is likely helpful to your work.

Even if none of the above apply to you, there are advantages of NASA research that benefit just about everyone in the US, because, ultimately, this research results in an economic infusion of cold, hard cash. Returns on investments into NASA generate an estimated $7-$14 for each $1 invested. Colonizing Mars will require new and lucrative technologies, but that’s not the only fruit on this particular tree. For the ambitious and long-term strategists among us, there are asteroids worth approximately 5 trillion dollars (yes, that’s trillion, with a “T”) just floating around out there, ripe for the picking. Although money might not actually grow on trees, we’re moving toward the next gold rush.1 How fortunate it is that I-O psychologists have a unique opportunity to help bring it about. While everyone else focuses on moving people into space while keeping them physically healthy, space psychologists are focused on enabling astronauts to accomplish work in space without killing each other. If that sounds easy, just imagine you were forced to conduct science experiments with “that guy” in your office while trapped in a tiny metal box for 2½ years and you’ll start to get the picture. 

The thing is, we can’t do our research in isolation. When we examine humans in analogue environments designed to mimic those of a space ship, or a base on Mars, we aren’t just running one study at a time. There are many teams of researchers all working in parallel, all with their own surveys, inventories, monitoring systems, and experiments to have the astronauts run. Things get confusing. Communication breaks down. Fortunately, we are not without a way to progress, as there are themes upon which space researchers tend to agree. Steven and I discovered a couple this May during a virtual roundtable with representatives from multiple areas of space research. We sat down with Steve Kozlowski (professor, Michigan State University, past president of SIOP), Lauren Landon (research scientist, KBRwyle/NASA: Johnson Space Center), Wendy Bedwell (assistant professor, University of South Florida), Bryan Caldwell (physiologist, project manager, HISEAS), and Peggy Wu (senior researcher, SIFT) for a chat on how to get everyone pulling in the same direction. Paraphrased from comments made during the discussion, Dr. Kozlowski emphasized that current needs within I-O space research include more advanced methods to ameliorate the effects of small sample sizes, increased interdisciplinarity within the field, and standardization of measures being used in analogue research sites. Other topics discussed ranged from virtual reality and AI countermeasures, to behavioral protocols and countermeasures, to the logistics of preaching the gospel of space within SIOP. 

Over the course of the discussion, two distinct themes emerged. First, participants agreed that there continues to be a need for further interdisciplinary coordination between and among psychologists and other researchers. Second, although there is already considerable research in progress, there is relatively low awareness outside of those directly involved. There is a consistent representation of space research at SIOP, but it is mostly at the presentation level. NASA has a tremendous volume of written material that they compile and review on an annual basis. Both of these research streams need to be made accessible and distributed to outside readership. We certainly had fun talking with such an esteemed group of researchers, and we even managed to identify some core issues germane to space oriented I-O research. However, there is much more to the field beyond what we discussed. 

We’ve been studying humans in space since the early ‘60s when Yuri Gagarin became the first person to travel into orbit. There are published works in existence that detail the historical context of modern spaceflight and provide literature overview, one of which is a freely downloadable book called the Psychology of Space Exploration by D. A. Vakoch, 2011. It’s clear that over the past 55 years we’ve learned a lot, but it’s just a tiny fraction of the knowledge we’ll need to send humans to Mars, be it for exploration, colonization, or to search for signs of life. Between us, the only time I’ll ever find life on Mars is when I finally get up the courage to look for that candy bar that I lost under the couch 2 years ago. 

Luckily for all us, the folks at NASA tend to be a bit more mindful about the kinds of research they do. NASA researchers have spent a great deal of time and energy creating what they call the “Human Research Roadmap” (HRR). Of their many research plans that span the vast breadth of science and technology, this one is most relevant to we I-Os, as it pertains to research on humans. They have compiled all the different ways in which humans might be affected by space travel. And when we say, “All the different ways,” we mean, “All the different ways.” There is an incredible amount of information here, and it can be intimidating for the uninitiated. Of the five primary areas within the HRR, we I-Os find ourselves primarily nested within that of behavioral health and performance, specifically examining the “risk of performance and behavioral health decrements due to inadequate cooperation, coordination, communication, and psychosocial adaptation within a team.” Quite the mouthful. Each year NASA updates a report for the various areas of the HRR, and the 2016 evidence report on teams research, along with all other evidence reports, may be found at the HRR website. Basically, these reports provide the reader with the challenges associated with space travel, the ways that we can address them through various areas of research, and what each project has accomplished thus far. We won’t attempt to summarize the extent of the research here, but those interested will find the reports digestible, engaging, and thorough.2

NASA does what they can to communicate the nonclassified aspects of their research to the public in other avenues as well. This August I had the pleasure of attending the APA national conference in Denver, where I was fortunate enough to attend Dr. Kelley Slack’s plenary address “Behavioral Risks on Mars and Asteroid Missions.” As a representative of NASA’s Behavioral Health and Performance group, she spoke from the perspective of a hypothetical astronaut on his way to Mars through a series of journal entries. Each entry served as a relatable introduction to all the different ways the Behavioral Health and Performance group works to ensure that the Mars team returns safe and sound. Dr. Slack explained that the first step on our journey to Mars will be selecting a team. She estimated the current applicant pool to be around 18,000, which will be narrowed down to the lucky few chosen to matriculate into the astronaut corps. Then after years of additional training, some may come to represent the US in what is likely to be the most internationally collaborative effort in space history. Although she was careful to note that there have been no final decisions made, Dr. Slack suggested the Mars crew may be as small as six people! Once the Mars team is on their merry way, they will partake in as many anthropologically typical behaviors as possible, according to Dr. Slack. This means that the crew will do things that we see across all human cultures, such as sharing food together around a table, even if they are just squeezing their food from a bag. 

There are I-O psychologists conducting new and exciting space-oriented research outside the walls of NASA as well as within. As noted on his Michigan State University faculty webpage, Dr. Kozlowski has centered his career on extreme-teams research and has lead space-oriented projects spanning several Mars analogue research facilities. He focuses on how team cohesion changes through time as part of his dynamic teams model. In order to better understand team dynamics, he has worked with Subir Biswas (professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, MSU) and his team to develop an accurate and reliable sensor device to unobtrusively measure physiological signals and team interactions in real time. Called the NeEWS Badge, this handy little device stands to revolutionize the way we observe, learn from, and improve the performance of teams. 

Another such researcher is Suzanne T. Bell of DePaul University in Chicago. After a review of the many space-related investigations under her command as noted on her DePaul University faculty site, we tracked her down and exchanged a few emails. She was kind enough to allow us a sneak peek at one of her latest projects: a novel, six-step methodological approach for studying astronauts and other teams that operate in extreme, high-stakes environments. Dr. Bell and her colleagues thoroughly describe the model in their recently accepted article in Journal of Management (now available as an advanced online publication). Their approach is designed to be adaptable for features specific to each study in order to produce research that can be used for context specific countermeasures to improve team performance. Although their method was developed with extreme teams in mind, it serves as a useful framework for creating actionable research in traditional teams as well.

Eduardo Salas is a name synonymous with team-training research, and although his mention might be last, it is certainly not least. He was recently honored with an APA Lifetime Achievement Award at their 2016 conference for his prolific contributions to research. During his address at the conference Dr. Salas mentioned that he had to be careful about the information he divulged, but he did suggest that he and NASA are partnering to examine the precise mathematics behind team composition modeling.

As we approach SIOP’s 2017 conference in Orlando, we hope to provide the reader with an engaging look into this exciting field. Attending the conference’s many3 space-oriented sessions would be a great way to get more involved. Particularly consider attending the SPACE! Community of Interest session on which we’re working, which will be a great way to meet people and network, especially if you’re new to the field. Opportunities are sure to abound for ambitious researchers, young and experienced alike. There is much more to space research than what we could cram into this column, so please, be on the lookout for future articles about space-oriented research in TIP. We don’t have our next one quite ready; we need a bit longer to planet. Future topics may include Mars research analogues (places where teams of people are studied from 2 weeks to a year while living in tiny boxes under the ocean, on the sides of volcanoes, and in the Antarctic), new technologies, and previews of what the next SIOP will have to offer!

Harrison Wojcik works as a school psychologist in Minneapolis, MN. His love affair with space began at age 2 when his parents dressed him as an astronaut for Halloween. Interested readers may contact him at Harrison.Wojcik@gmail.com.



Steven rant: Or perhaps not. Gold rushes were hugely profitable for very few and devastating for very many; perhaps this will be more of the next penicillin in its scope of impact on human well-being. 
How cool is that? Wouldn’t it be great if we had one of those for other contexts, like if multinational organizations banded together and had a roadmap for their research needs? Alas.
I mean, probably there will be many of them. We’re not quite sure yet.

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