Ken Cavanagh on I-O in Space

Ken Cavanagh was thinking about space travel long before he started working for SpaceX. In this episode, I talk to Ken about his new, thought-provoking essay, The Challenge to Astronauts.



This transcript is AI-generated and may not be completely accurate. Please do not quote myself or any of my guests based on this transcript.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:00:00] Welcome to the Department 12 Podcast, where we talk about everything industrial and organizational psychology. My guest on this episode is Ken Kavanaugh. Ken got his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Syracuse university and his master’s degree in IO psych from City University of New York, Brooklyn College.

And I think he has a pretty interesting job. I sometimes get the question, “Well, what can I do with this IO psych degree?” One thing you can do is to be a workforce analyst for SpaceX, which is a pretty cool job, I think, at a pretty cool company. So, Ken, could you just tell us a little bit about what that job entails?

Ken Kavanagh: [00:00:36] Yeah, of course. I think at a high level, the easiest way to describe it is solving business problems with people, data.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:00:42] The reason I invited you on, Ken, is to talk about an essay that you released a little earlier this month called the challenge to astronauts, and it’s about  the psychology of space exploration.

Why do you write an essay like this? What motivates you to record your thoughts this way?

Ken Kavanagh: [00:01:01] Yeah. You know, I’ve always been really interested in this as a space. W one of my focuses in graduate school was team and group behavior.

And it was just always a fun thought for me to think about what would it be like to be the psychologist who is studying team behavior for astronauts? You know these are some of the most highly performing teams, if not be highly, be most highly performing teams to exist. And that would be a pretty cool job.

So that’s really what sparked this interest. And along with actually a paper that I recently discovered which is well worth the read. Called the psychology of space exploration. And it’s a pretty comprehensive paper, but it’s published by NASA and it goes into really deep historical detail about how NASA and the field of psychology work together throughout time.

And  those two things were really be basis of putting together this nest day.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:02:03]  When I think about astronauts, like a lot of people the iconic image of course, is Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. And I think of the Apollo missions, especially Apollo 11 and 1969.

And you start your essay with an observation that the biggest challenge that we face at that time were technological rather than psychological. Could you say a little more about that?

 Ken Kavanagh: [00:02:25] At the time what we were doing in the space industry was extraordinary, but the keyword there is at the time, I mean, it was 1969.

If you look at the highest degree of technology and the average American household, you probably found a color TV. There wasn’t, you know, any sort of portable device that, you know, we carry around on a regular day-to-day basis. Like there is today and it wasn’t until really the 1970s where technology really started to take off.

 I’ve mentioned India and benches of the copy desk, political cassette player, the first cell phone, and even the Apple one. All the least in the seventies. So it’s really that turning point for technology where we start to see some of the big changes around the globe that we’re now so involved with today and probably most of the time take for granted.

But what you don’t really see is what is happening with tech knowledge behind the scenes in the space industry. And you can only really take what happened in 1969 and what they’re working with and what we know about the space and the shoot out.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:03:36] The computers that were talking to each other on right now and most certainly the network over which we’re talking to each other right now would have seemed like. Science fiction to the people that actually went to the moon and came back.

It’s a remarkable engineering achievement that they pulled it off. And the remarkable human achievement that the astronauts who did that work were able to operate these highly complex machines. But according to your essay the operation or the piloting of the craft, It’s not really all that complicated anymore.

Ken Kavanagh: [00:04:09] Yeah, right. So you could see with space X’s dragon capsule a lot of the functionality the job that an astronaut typically would have had to do has been reduced by the implementation of autonomous vehicle controls. So for example when we deliver astronauts to the space station, Part of that process is docking the capsule onto the space station so they can enter safely that used to be a function of astronauts, where they had to guide the shuttle or the capsule to the space station to get it to locked in dragon.

Does that all autonomously? That means that the level of skill that someone needs to be able to board a space craft and to be able to dock somehow has essentially been reduced to no skill at all.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:05:10] Now that the job of an astronaut technologically speaking has gotten so much easier because AI is. Doing a lot of the work that Neil Armstrong and buzz Aldrin and other sort of done in the past, I guess the job of an astronauts really easy now, I’m guessing you’re not good. Quite agree with that.

Ken Kavanagh: [00:05:30] Well, it’s definitely still a tough job. I mean, there’s a lot to astronauts’ jobs that doesn’t really go into the public as much. Typically astronauts are very involved in the entire process of , engineering. To the actual mission itself, because you know, these guys are the best of the best, and there are still a lot of things  you need to do as an astronaut, that really come from more of like a pilot background and just certain knowledge that  you need to be able to be effective when things go wrong.

And I think now there’s much more emphasis on that. Then there was the in the past where the emphasis was on both on the job itself and if something goes wrong but now the job itself is a bit easier, but you still do need that high level of proficiency and expertise because if something does go wrong, if something needs to be fixed on the fly you need to know how to be able to do that.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:06:28] When psychologists get together and we talk about unusual workplaces,  we’re talking about driving Uber where it’s sort of unusual, but it’s hard to imagine a more extreme workplace than outer space. You argue in this essay that the men and women who become astronauts, they have to maintain it.

Calm and positive mind. And in fact, you say it’s absolutely critical even have that in bold. Could you just explain why that is given how much has been automated?

Ken Kavanagh: [00:06:56] It goes back to what I just mentioned. If something is to go wrong, the worst thing you can do with pants and anything can go wrong.

From a small poor, poor decision to an anomaly that impacts the entire mission. Astronaut has to be able to respond in the most effective way possible, and that means being able to have a calm and quiet mind without panic to make good decisions, because that’s really. What astronauts too bad, they make good decisions.

 I think the number of people that you might need a board to do something like that is going to become a lot less.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:07:40] You also mentioned in the article that we’re probably just a few decades away from becoming a true space bearing civilization, which I think is a great way to put that in a great way to think about it.

When we think about space exploration. Now we think about. A small handful of astronauts who pilot a particular craft or spend time on a space station. But the challenges that we’re looking at now is not just going in and putting our foot on the moon and bringing back some samples, but actually building a base there

 It seems like there’s going to be more people involved in that then the folks we traditionally think of as astronauts, is that fair?

Ken Kavanagh: [00:08:18] Yeah. I think that’s absolutely fair. And I think you really hit the nail on the head there. It’s coming to the point where. We’re going to start seeing the responsibilities and the work that needs to be done to reach the goals of the industry or the particular corporation expand beyond astronaut capabilities or typical skill sets I should back up for a second because I think there’s.

Two parts here. There’s this idea of, like you mentioned the establishment of a basis of other facilities, extra planetary facilities. There’s the Artemis project which is an upcoming project to start building the lunar base where NASA and space act have contracted to do that. And I believe it’s 20, 24.

That project in itself is going to start to introduce the need for different skills. But that project itself is also going to get people to start thinking about the fact that light is not going to be a government monopoly forever.   The vast majority of space Corporations now are associated with government.

There are quite a few startups now who are building rockets and doing contracts. But still a lot of those contracts are all government contracts. Eventually we’re going to start to see commercial space flight become much, much more of a thing. And that’s where you’re going to have all sorts of different skillsets and all sorts of different types of people being involved in the space industry and astronauts are probably just going to be this small, but important piece of the larger puzzle.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:10:03] As the technological burden on astronauts decreases and the psychological burden increases  you argue that IO psychologists are going to have.

To fill some of the most important shoes the industry leading space agencies in the coming decades. When you think about the challenges that those IO psychologists will face what kinds of questions are you most interested in? What do you think they should be looking at or thinking about now?

Ken Kavanagh: [00:10:30] I think there are a few really important questions. When we establish some sort of extra planetary base or colony or whatever that becomes who governs, who decides what the rules are. Is it the organization who establish it? What is the organizational structure that you need to support such a thing? How do you choose the people who get to go and explore and invent the new frontier?

I think it’s really important that we start thinking about these things really soon, because. I have a feeling what will happen is that this industry is going to blow up faster than we these types of questions are going to need to be answered.  It’s just a matter of how are we gonna think about them beforehand? Or are we going to make the decision when the time comes?

 Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:11:26] There’s so many directions my mind goes in when I hear you talk about this. And one of them is you mentioned an employee selection, a challenge of. Who gets to go on these missions and things like that. And it seems to me it’s a, it’s a new kind of challenge for IO psychologists, because you’re not just trying to predict job performance or even  organizational fit.

It’s really a more holistic kind of selection process because it’s about somebody’s whole life. They’re not gonna. Punch out at 5:00 PM and go home there, there, there, and that’s going to be their life. And that also makes me think that it’s  an opportunity for interdisciplinary work within the field of psychology, because it’s not just going to be about the workplace.

It’s going to be an important workplace in an unusual one that it’s also going to be about. What is life like a 24 seven, three 65 for people in this environment living their lives on a lunar base or a space station?

Ken Kavanagh: [00:12:29] Yeah, I mean, sure. Let’s think about just the current situation with the pandemic.

 Some people have been in a remote working environment for a full year having team, the office, having interacted face to face. If anybody from the office for an entire year and the level of stress that some people are going through with feeling, and you’re still here now, imagine having to deal with that, but your home and your planet and your entire environment is exclusive to a handful of people.

And you may work with people from earth, then you may communicate with them. But the only people that you’re going to have face-to-face contact with is that handful of people that you originally came with. And if we start to talk about places like Mars, which right now take about six, eight months to get there. And because of the way  the planets rotate around the sides, you could only travel to Mars at a certain time of the year. So I believe it’s about two years minimum. Someone would need to stay on Mars if they went there and after. I listened to this podcast. I mentioned in the essay called the habitat.

And it’s a really interesting podcast because it takes a handful of people and puts them in a Mars simulation, which is essentially this area, this very small area of Hawaii kind of volcanic looking that does its best to simulate what it would be like if we had five people there for a year and the interpersonal dynamic gets really interesting.  As a psychologist, I’m sure you can guess there is no escaping the conflict there and it happens. And it’s really going to be interesting. What happens for people who have to stay there for long periods of time. And they’re just. Sat up with it and fed up with the people that they’re with and how are they going to continue doing their jobs well in that type of circumstance, it, to me, that sounds like a pretty tough situation to be in, regardless of who you are.

The human interaction is something that is constantly flux. It could go good. It could go bad, but there’s almost never a situation within a group, especially when you’re talking about months, two years at a time where conflict doesn’t arise and you have to wonder how that will impact the larger goals of the mission.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:15:11] As you mentioned what the working and living conditions are going to be like for a Mars mission.

The most immediate analogy that came to my mind was the nuclear submarine. So if. If someone were to say, Hey, Ben, this would be a bad move on their part because I’m definitely not qualified to do this, but Hey, Ben, you know, you need to start thinking seriously about the psychology of space travel and how do we find the right people and what is the governance like and how do we ensure people can do these very difficult jobs and these very probably confined in high pressure circumstances.

I might start by looking at. Well, how do Navy Mariners do this on a nuclear submarine? Teamwork is absolutely crucial. You are separated from family, you know, there’s a lot of similarities.

I just wonder, have you heard about any kind of. Analogs like that that those who are interested in this research have found.

Ken Kavanagh: [00:16:10] So there are a few different analogs. A lot of them run by Matt to studies or universities who work with NASA on a particular research. A lot of it is done in Antartica. But there are a few different types of analog environments that they do these types of studies in for exactly this purpose.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:16:32] This has been absolutely fascinating conversation and really thought provoking. I suspect this is going to be a popular episode and maybe one that that gets shared with students you know, to get them thinking about creative applications of IO psychology.

Ken Kavanagh: [00:16:46] Yeah. That’s, that’s something I think about from time to time.

I think one of the biggest problems that we have. It’s very relatable to some of the work that psychologists do in organizations and that answering surveys.  Something I learned from the habitat podcast was that astronaut attempt to respond to, I dunno, 20 something share res per day questions about how their day went, what they did, how they’re feeling, if they’re stressed.

You know, anything you could imagine. That’s a measurable psychological construct. That’s applicable to the situation. And they’re literally sitting there writing these things out. So one of the things that I had thought about that could be a good project for the more technically savvy IO psychologist is coming up with some sort of technology  that could reduce  the amount of effort that someone in that position has to go through to respond to all those surveys maybe first  or what that looks like. But I, I, what’s interesting about that tool. That potential tool is that it’s not just applicable to astronaut ticket actually will be really applicable to a lot of organizations because I’m sure, you know surveying points has become a really, really big thing over the past few years.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:18:09] And the trend is more towards pulse surveys where you’re conducting them more often with fewer items over a longer period of time, rather than one big survey every year  and this is kind of an extreme version of that, where you have  a lot of items that are being administered just about every day.

And I think that the survey fatigue must be it must be really tough.  You know, when you were talking about the habitat podcast, the first thing that came to my mind was the, the old MTV show real-world, you know, strangers and you put them in a house and they have to figure out how to get along.

One of the conceits of, of reality shows like that is the idea of the confessional video. You know, they go off into this little room and they talk to the camera about what’s going on in their lives. And that’s John obviously for the purposes of, of drama and narrative instruction. But I wonder, could you do something similar to that?

 For astronauts  where instead of responding to a survey on a device multiple times a day. Is it just a place they can sort of duck in and say their piece and then maybe even have AI analyze or try to predict based on that.

I could probably go on like this just spit balling ideas for another hour, but I think you would probably lose your patience and I think the listeners would as well. So I think at this time I will thank you very much for this fascinating conversation and I will encourage the listeners to check out the challenge to astronauts.

Ken’s really thought-provoking essay. Thank you for being on the show, Ken.

Ken Kavanagh: [00:19:39] Yeah, absolutely, Ben, thanks for having me.

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