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Ep 124: The Human Element

Season 1Episode 124Dec 27, 2019

Aaron Allcorn and Tom Williams discuss NASA’s efforts to understand the optimal spaceflight environment that maximizes human performance. This is part two of a six part series on NASA’s Human Research Program. HWHAP Episode 124.

The Human Element

The Human Element

If you’re fascinated by the idea of humans traveling through space and curious about how that all works, you’ve come to the right place.

“Houston We Have a Podcast” is the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center from Houston, Texas, home for NASA’s astronauts and Mission Control Center. Listen to the brightest minds of America’s space agency – astronauts, engineers, scientists and program leaders – discuss exciting topics in engineering, science and technology, sharing their personal stories and expertise on every aspect of human spaceflight. Learn more about how the work being done will help send humans forward to the Moon and on to Mars in the Artemis program.

On Episode 124 Aaron Allcorn and Tom Williams discuss NASA’s efforts to understand the optimal spaceflight environment that maximizes human performance. This is part two of a six part series on NASA’s Human Research Program. This episode was recorded on November 19, 2019.

Houston, we have a podcast


Gary Jordan (Host): Houston, we have a podcast. Welcome to the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center, Episode 124, “The Human Element.” I’m Gary Jordan. I’ll be your host today. On this podcast, we bring in the experts, scientists, engineers, astronauts, all to let you know what’s going on in the world of human spaceflight. So, this is part two of our six-part series on the Human Research Program. So far, you’ve heard an overview of the five elements of the Human Research Program and the massive coordinated effort it takes to discover the best methods and technologies to support safe, productive human space travel. Today, we’re going to focus on the human factors and behavioral performance element, the element responsible for identifying and mitigating human factors and behavioral performance risks that come along with living and working in space, and of course, returning safely to Earth, human factors being the integration of human and machine in a sense, and behavioral performance being to maximize what astronauts can do in space. So, going into the details of this element is Aaron Allcorn, Element Manager, and Dr. Thomas Williams, Element Scientist. Dr. Thomas Williams goes by Tom. Each element of the Human Research Program has an Element Manager that handles the project costs and schedules and the technical work and the resources and also has an Element Scientist, the individual responsible for integrating and coordinating the science. So, here we go, the ins and outs of the human factors and behavioral performance element with Aaron Allcorn and Dr. Tom Williams. Enjoy.

[ Music ]

Host:Aaron and Tom, thanks so much for coming on the podcast today, to talk about human factors and behavioral performance. I’m curious to find out what this is all about. Thanks for coming.

Aaron Allcorn: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Tom Williams: Great. Thank you. It’s very good to be here.

Host: I wanted to start with more of your background, because, I mean, if you’re thinking about this particular element, when it comes to Human Research Program, I say human factors and behavioral performance — I bet you a lot of people are like, “OK, I don’t know what’s that all about.” So, let’s kind of set some context in what you guys have done in the past. Aaron, we’ll start with you.

Aaron Allcorn: Well, I think you’ll find the side variety of backgrounds and skills throughout our element. Starting with me, I think my primary role in the project, in the element is to be picked for project management. So, that’s my primary background. I’m an engineer by schooling, and I’ve been at JSC for about 20 years, a lot of that time in Operations and most recently, I got the opportunity to work with the Human Research Program, and I’m really enjoying it.

Host: Alright. So, as your engineering background, and I think this is going to come into play when we start talking about particularly the human factors part of things, is — and correct me if I’m wrong, if I’m saying this the way I’m interpreting this — is human factors is more of that integration and adding the human element to whenever you’re thinking about how to design a machine.

Aaron Allcorn: Correct.

Host: OK. So, that’s perfect. So, you have that engineering background. Tom, what about you?

Tom Williams: You know, I’m a clinical psychologist by training, and bring to that the operational experiences that I had through multiple years in support of commanders on the ground and in support of military operations. So, kind of a melding between the science and the operational applications. How do we make the science operationally relevant so that we can better understand how that human system integration works, what are the risk factors associated with spaceflight, to include the behavioral performance and cognitive changes that may come about as a result of spaceflight, how the team processes in cooperation and coordination go together, and how sleep’s circadian rhythms may change as a result of that, and then how does the human factors come together. So, how do we identify how these multiple behavioral health and performance factors may impact on our ability to carry out the tasks that need to be done on a spaceflight.

Host: It’s all about achieving that objective?

Tom Williams: Exactly.

Host: Making sure that the human is going to be able to do that. I should say, Tom, welcome back to the podcast booth, because we’ve done this before. We talked about — we went through those hazards of human spaceflight, and you talked about isolation and confinement specifically. Is that a part of this story, that we’re going to be talking about today, with the human factors and the behavioral performance?

Tom Williams: It is, indeed. And it relates to how, when we’re in isolation and confinement, how the brain may change, how the social relationships may change, how the individual adapts to that less sensory stimulation that all of us get each day as we interact with our environment and with multiple other people, and you lose some of that on a spaceflight, confined inside a spacecraft. So, how does that start to impact on you, and how can we find ways to reduce that impact, to maintain a sustained level of performance, so that we can return the crew safely back home, as we — after we sent them off on an exploration mission.

Host: OK. Let’s dive deep into what this element is all about. Aaron, I’ll toss to you. What is human factors and behavioral performance? When you’re looking at your organization, what is this all about?

Aaron Allcorn: I think our goal is to make sure that the human, that is only one of the systems that’s going to Mars, we want to make sure that human system is capable of performing to tasks that we need, to have mission success when we get there and safety return. And so, that’s the difference from coming from an operational world. You know, we know we have the technology. We can put a spacecraft on Mars. The challenge for our element is to — and the other elements that are HRP are, you know, what are the considerations for a human that’s going to be traveling that distance?

Host: Yeah, it’s more — yeah, I guess it’s performance-based, and in both cases, right? Both with the human factors and behavioral performance. It’s about maximizing the capabilities of what that human can do when the harsh confined whatever you call it environment of space, that they’ll be able to succeed, that they’ll be able to pull that mission off.

Aaron Allcorn: Right.

Host: So, how does that work, then? What is it exactly that you’re looking at in the organization and doing, to oversee that, to oversee that performance?

Aaron Allcorn: I talk just from a high level. So — and other elements are similar in this, but we — our first step is to identify the risks that we think the — you know, Tom talked about the hazards before. What are the risks inherent in those hazards that would keep us from completing our mission? So, understanding those risks, it would be the first step. And then, coming up with ways to mitigate those risks. So, we build our project plans and HRP around those things — identifying, mitigating, putting counter-measures in place that will allow us to reduce or minimize that impact, so that we are — we’re go for flight, when it comes time to go to Mars.

Host: So, Tom, what are the risks when it comes to behavior performance? What are the risks that we’re looking at?

Tom Williams: Well, the three big ones that we focus on in the crew health and performance are the cognitive behavioral changes that may come about as a result of the exposure to the five spaceflight hazards that you identified in your previous podcast, and that would include the cognitive changes with regard to the brain that may be impacted, not only by the isolation and confinement, but also by radiation effects that may alter some of the brain, and we’re investigating that aspect. Another of the risks include the team risk, the sleep and circadian risk, the risk for human automation and robotic integration. So, we expect more autonomous automated systems on board spacecraft in the future. So, how do we ensure that the humans on board trust those automated systems that may be necessary for more autonomous long duration missions? We also have a human-computer interface risk that we look at, in terms of how do we ensure that the human, in reading the displays, knows what display to activate at which time and keeping it from being confusing, like opening up a brochure of a new piece of electronics and trying to figure out exactly what switch do you turn on for which activity? But we need to make sure that the crew is trained on that, and that the interface they have is appropriate to that outcome that they’re seeking. The other is on looking at the mission processes and tasks that they would be expected to do. How do we ensure that they’re trained in the appropriate way to carry out which mission processes at which time, and that also includes giving them meaningful tasks for the duration of the mission. So, if they’re on a long duration mission, rather than sitting idle for long periods of time, how do we identify which training might be provided at which time, to get them ready for the demands that would be placed upon them, up on landing on a planetary surface like either the Moon or Mars. And then, we also look at occupant protection and dynamic loads. So, on launch, the crew experience certain G-forces and on landings, they’ll experience G-forces. How do we predict what the human body can take, so that after a long period in microgravity or altered gravity, where they may have experienced some bone loss, how do we ensure that the dynamic load on that bone does not cause an increased risk of a fracture or some other injury to the crew member, just from the landing forces alone?

Host: So, it’s — I’m seeing — I’m starting to see why the human factors and behavioral performance are really linked together. When I think about human factors, I think about it as — I think occupant protection is a great example of that, because yes, it’s performance, but it’s — there’s a lot of safety components to that too, making sure that yeah, they’ll be able to perform their tasks, but they’re not going to get hurt, and that you have to account for the human in that aspect, in that way. But the performance, it seems like it’s more making sure that, especially on long duration missions — and that was something that I really took away from that, was you really have to keep them occupied. I know we talked about this last time, when we talked about the hazard of isolation and confinement, but really making sure that brain is stimulated. They seem like very different things, right? They seem like a safety component and the stimulation and making sure that you’re going to be able to do your tasks, but I can start to see how they’re really related. Is that why these elements — or I guess, these two things — this human factors and behavioral performance — are combined in this element?

Tom Williams: Yes, that’s great. That’s–

Host: OK, so Aaron, with your engineering experience, when you came into this role as the manager overseeing the — it seems like it’s more human related, it’s more science related? Maybe that’s not something that you worked on in the past. I think you were fluid systems engineer. So, you were definitely in the system component. Right?

Aaron Allcorn: Right.

Host: So, what surprised you when you started thinking about more of the human aspects of things?

Aaron Allcorn: Well, really what excites me is the human part of this. One of my favorite stories to tell is my first day in the Human Research Program, and one of our external investigators came in and gave the status of some of the research that he was doing and talked about how not only was his findings going to help protect our crew members on long duration missions, but he also has a clinical practice and how he was using those things that he had learned from our research to change how he was treating patients clinically that very day. So, that’s one of the really — one of the things that really excites me about this, is that the human part of that system and how do we make sure that we keep our crew members safe, who we all know and love and work with daily around here, how do we make sure that they’re successful in their mission, and they come back, and they have no long-term impacts from their long duration spaceflight.

Host: That’s interesting. It’s not just a spaceflight thing. It’s very much integrated into things that other doctors and professionals are doing, just around the world, that can be integrated in I guess whatever way that makes sense to them, but even with that isolated and confined environment that we’re talking about. It translates to earthly things, in a way.

Aaron Allcorn: I think it’s an important aspect of our research, is that it’s not — you know, we have a number of experts here at JSC that carry these things out, some of the research that’s done locally, but we rely on experts across the country, universities and companies across the country, to help provide that research.

Host: So, Tom, let’s go back in time for a bit, and take a look at why this is something that is important to NASA, to look at human factors and behavioral performance and incorporate it? We touched on it a lot, but have we seen in the past that has really opened our eyes into dedicating a whole element to it?

Tom Williams: Well, part of what we learned from several different spaceflights — for example, on Apollo 13, the problem-solving and the team coming together, both on the ground and in the spacecraft, that solving the complex problem of how to get the [Carbon Dioxide] CO2 scrubber working again and the importance of identifying what exactly did the crew have available and how could they leverage that to solve problems. Because part of what our element focuses on is the problem-solving that a team needs to do and how does the team work together in solving a problem, so that you don’t get one person who’s trying to force a solution, when you’re getting the input from the divergent thinking that would be possible from all the team members. And so, part of what we need to be able to do is to look at, if we don’t have the ready access to Mission Control on a long duration mission, because of the distance and the time, because of communication delays that would be involved in the great distances, how do you train the crew to solve problems? So, that’s one of the things that we’ve learned from looking at past missions, is we are heavily dependent upon mission control to solve problems. How do we design processes on board now and looking into the future, to make that link. The other thing we looked at is how the — just the spaceflight environments may impact on crew and how they get along and how much — how many times do we see conflict mentioned in some of their journals? And then, noting where do we see rises in mentions of conflict between crew members and looking at that across a six-month mission, and then projecting, would we see that continue to increase long-term, if it was a nine-month mission to get to Mars, and then how would we introduce counter-measures to reduce some of that risk. And also, on the human factors side, looking at how does the crew member interact with the spacecraft, and how do we make sure that the displays are appropriate to when they need to activate something that may be critical in an emergency situation. So, how do we ensure the crew — number one, is trained? So, some of what we look at is how well does the training now get reflected in their processes, and then how well are they able to respond to demands or requirements and looking at past instances helps us look into the future.

Host: It seems pretty difficult, from what you’re describing, to research this, in a way. Because when I’m — you know, I think — we talk about data a lot. We talk about numbers. We talk about readings and certain things. The way you’re describing this, Tom, is a lot of these data are anecdotal in nature. They’re journal entries. They’re feelings. It’s a different way of observing data. So, how do you take these and turn it into a solution for the future?

Tom Williams: That’s a great question, and that is a challenge, any time you’re dealing with people. You know, and sometimes, when I’m talking with engineers, I’ll remind them that in quantum theory, there are subatomic particles known as quarks, and we’ve never seen a quark. And every time they attempt to measure it, it changes. And we say, sort of in a play on words, that in that same sense, people are kind of quarky. They change when we try to measure them. So, how do we then assess — given those changes, given their sometimes not always willingness to share with us exactly what they’re experiencing — how do we get to the ground truth, to then develop the counter-measures? Part of the way we do that is to work with analogs on the ground and try to select crew who are very similar to the astronauts, people who share common backgrounds. So, the same age range of 30 to 55, a STEM background, a science, technology, and engineering or mathematics background. And then, put them in situations that we think would be similar to what the crew would experience. Not entirely, because they’re not going to be in altered gravity, but to get a controlled setting, where we’re able to assess how are they responding to stress. And we look at them repeatedly over time, look at their biomarker changes, look at performance changes. So, we’re trying to integrate all that information. How are they reporting what they’re experiencing? How are the blood biomarkers changing? How is their performance being altered at those times? To give us the potential, in the future, to look only at performance. So, if we can start to align a biomarker change with a self-report change on stress to an actual performance change, that gives us the opportunity to have the crew only perform some task to give an indication to them of their level of readiness to carry out some other task that may be more critical to the safety of the mission.

Host: This is a good lead-in to start talking about some of the things that this element in particular is doing to research these ideas. We talked about behavioral performance and some of the things that we’re looking at. But what is it that we’re actively doing in the element, Aaron? What is your organization doing to actually tackle some of these problems?

Aaron Allcorn: Well, Tom mentioned the analogs that we do. That’s a big part. And one thing that maybe is different in our element than some of the other ones, we have a lot of — so, we have the HERA, the Human Exploration Research Analog. I stumbled across that. [Laughter]

Host: There’s so many acronyms.

Aaron Allcorn: Yes. Here at JSC, so that’s one analog that we use. It’s like a miniature spacecraft, and like Tom said, we’ll have people in there, crew members that will participate in a relatively short duration mission. But we can observe them there, and so we try to do what’s most cost-effective, I guess. We have that as an analog. We have — we’ve used a DLR analog in Germany [Facility at the German Aerospace Center] and an NEK [Facility for Russia’s Institute for Biomedical Problems] analog in Russia and of course, a number of things that are done on [International Space Station] ISS, as well.

Host: So, we’ll see in one of the upcoming elements, there’s the management of these resources that is a different element, the research operations and integration, but when it comes to you guys, in behavioral performance, human factors, it’s more of working maybe with the researchers to identify or come up with the questions or come up with the investigations. What it is that you want to do in these analogs? Is that what you guys are doing?

Aaron Allcorn: Right. So, that’s back to — looking at — understanding the underlying condition. Then we identify what we call our gaps in the research, and then that’s maybe more on Tom’s side, with the science team looking at what is the state of our current knowledge, where do we need to get to in that, in order to feel comfortable sending somebody on this mission. So what gap remains? And then, we’ll structure research announcements around those remaining gaps.

Host: So, Tom, when it comes to the science itself, what are you doing in-house and who are you working with, to actually conduct the science?

Tom Williams: We’ve got a number of different researchers that we work with, but I’ll share a couple of really sort of interesting ones that we’re working on getting ready to go for an exploration mission. So, we have one, seven different [Principal Investigator] PIs integrated into what we call a human capabilities assessment for autonomous missions, and HCAAM, for short. So, what we’re looking at is when we get some distance from Earth, and we don’t have ready access to mission control, how can we align the cognitive age or virtual assistance that would take the place of some of the informational needs that crew currently reach down to mission control to obtain? So, what are those processes that we could leverage? And so, it gives us a decision support, an execution support, in terms of processes that we would have onboard, so that if there’s something — like Scott Kelly often had to address or repair of the (Carbon Dioxide Removal Assembly) CDRA system, the CO2 system. Would there be a capability in like a virtual reality or an enhanced reality system, to help guide a crew member to repair something, if they couldn’t get real time comms with mission control on Earth? So, it’s not to say that mission control becomes irrelevant. They’ll always remain relevant, but what happens if you lose comms, and you need some kind of an assist? And we want to plan ahead. So, we have seven different researchers, and that’s led by a former astronaut, Steve Robinson, out at the University of California, and he’s done a masterful job of helping us integrate the other six, that are looking at various capabilities that can be brought to bear. We have another researcher at the University of Pennsylvania that just is completing a behavioral core measure. So, looking at the integration of multiple measures that will assess the cognitive changes that may be brought about, the changes to the team dynamics that may be revealed, and how do we learn from both ground analogs, then taking it, and he took this from the ground analogs onto space station, and we’re just getting some of those data coming in now. We just completed the last, and part of what we asked him to do, as an add-on to his research, was a Mars capability assessment. So, one of the questions that is important for us to be able to answer is, once the crew land on Mars, what will their capability be, in terms of kind of fine motor cognitive processes, to connect a power grid to their landing craft. So, can they do that? If they can do that, then that would require less kind of mass weight and volume on the landing craft. If they can’t do that, then we need to design more capability within the landing craft, perhaps more battery, to give them recovery time. So, can we cognitively, physically integrate our ability to carry out some task immediately upon landing, so we’re able to look at crew after they’ve been in space and see, can they carry this task out? And those are the kinds of research questions that will immediately help us start to answer some of these really important questions.

Host: Yeah, there’s a lot in there. There was — when you were talking about doing an investigation, putting together a scenario, and I like the idea of bringing together multiple PIs, Principal Investigators, to ask different questions about the same scenario. Maybe get the fullest experience out of whatever you — science that you want to do and take that, and then you mentioned doing things on the ground, doing things in analogs, and these almost simulations that are kind of like spaceflight. And then, bringing it to real spaceflight, and see how it works. This is all going to be very important coming up. We still have a lot that we can do on the Moon with Artemis, sure. But then, it sounds like one of the biggest things when it comes to performance is that level of autonomy, being able to not rely on the ground. And we hear it all the time, when it comes to operations. They’re fixing something, like you mentioned, they’re fixing something that’s broken. They’re working through the procedures. They encounter a snag, and what do they do? They call to the ground, and they say, “Hey, I need help with this,” and then they get assistance. So, not having that sort of, that sort of crutch to lean on, I could see how that could be really important. Aaron, you being an engineer, thinking about some of the design of some of these machines. It sounds like reliability is a big one, when it comes to some of the levels that would help with the autonomy of human factors and designing machines to be the best that they can be, so that they’re the easiest for the humans. How do you see the relationship with some of the things you’re doing in your group, and human factors and behavioral performance, and working with the engineers, to come up with the solution that’s best for not only the practicality of the design, but making sure that the human element is considered?

Aaron Allcorn: We mentioned counter-measures kind of for people. The other — two other items I would think was kind of technology development and standards and requirements. So, we — the results of our research findings will be used and be documented and the standards and requirements that will be used in spacecraft for design. So, that’s one of our primary areas of influence on future spacecraft.

Host: Yeah, that design is going to be really important, and it’s going to definitely inform what we can do. Is there anything we’re looking at now, perhaps on the International Space Station, perhaps on the ground in example. Tom, you’ve gone through a bunch of them so far. But an example of a human factors line of work. You mentioned screens, for example. That really incorporates the human that we’re looking forward to in the near future.

Tom Williams: One of the tasks that we currently have is a research component, but it’s also an operational component. And that’s really the best type of assessment tool that we can use, is one that the crew would already be using in an operational way. And so, that’s a robotic system, and that’s when the crew takes delivery of a resupply vehicle, they have to use the Canadarm, and the device that they use is a robotic system, and we have a robotic trainer that’s on board, that they practice with prior to actually taking receipt and connecting, using the Canadarm to connect and retrieve a resupply vehicle. So, we have them do that robotic task, which really is a visual, spatial, integration process. We have them do it pre-flight, early flight, mid-flight, late flight, and immediately post-landing. And so, that gives us a capability to look at how might operational performance change over the course of a mission. And then, if we can look at if someone’s up there for six months versus nine months versus a year, how do we see that ability change with time? And that gives us a dose effect relationship between the effects of some of the spaceflight hazards and the performance changes that may accumulate over time. And so, the robotic task again is, it’s an operational task, but we also have it as a research task, and that capability gives us an immediate crosswalk between what is the crew expected to do, and what are we assessing to determine how that capability may change over time.

Host: You mentioned crew. Obviously, a big part of doing human research is getting humans involved. So, naturally, on the space station, we can involve astronauts, and there’s a certain level of expectation when it comes to astronauts. You mentioned ground studies though, too. So, who are we involving on the ground that would give us a good dataset for understanding what we can implement in space?

Tom Williams: So, one of the teams we work closely with is the Russian IBMP, and we just finished a four-month analog and had six crew members inside this analog, and it’s inside Moscow, and it’s configured like a spacecraft. And so, they were in an isolation facility for those four months and carrying out mission-relevant tasks. The lead member of that six-member team was a Russian cosmonaut that’s actually flown in the past. So, and then the other individuals were all selected based on their backgrounds related to being crew-like. So, between 30 and 55 and a STEM background, as related earlier. So, that gives us an increase capability and confidence in our data when we know that we have individuals, one of whom is actually a cosmonaut, has flown, and we see their results and how it compares to others within the analog. And so, those — that’s one important partnership we have, and we’re gearing up, about a year from now, to initiate an eight-month analog in that same facility, and then about 18 months later, a 12-month analog. So, that way we’ll be able to look at the effects of this isolation and confinement at four months, eight months, and 12 months, and then assess how did we see changes, if any, accruing over those periods, relative to the isolation and confinement.? And then, how do we identify the stressors, and then how do we identify potential counter-measures that would mitigate that stress that we may see?

Host: There’s a lot of different examples I’m hearing of the way teams are working together, and we’re gathering these nice sets of data that we can put forward towards some of our future missions. What does that implementation process look like? Once we actually have the data, and we have all these, you know, you write papers. You publish something. You come up with a solution. What is the implementation of that in the culture of an astronaut performing tasks, in the culture of mission control, making sure that they give astronauts, or they know that the astronauts are going to have a certain level of autonomy. What’s that implementation look like in the future?

Tom Williams: Well, part of the opportunities that these analogs present us is sort of revealed by some of the research that we’ve used Noshir Contractor from Northwestern University. So, Noshir has really done some great research for us that’s looked at what are the characteristics of the team that you might put together, and what are those characteristics reveal, in terms of predicting who may get along and who may not get along, who may experience the most stress, in terms of the team interactions. So, he’s been very effective in predicting what has happened, and we’re going to be looking closely at how do we predict what will happen? So, looking at those characteristics, retrospectively, we’ve been able to say, yeah, we — had we known these things, we would have seen that the likelihood of conflict was higher, given these combinations of characteristics of these team members and the demands that were placed on them. So, how can we prospectively do that, and that won’t be so that we can limit who goes. It will be to help identify when might we need to provide a counter-measure, to reduce the risk of team conflict before it occurs. So, it will be ideal to look at any relationship and be able to predict what are the characteristics that lead to conflict. And some of that comes from some of the literature on even marital relationships, in terms of how does a marital couple interact, and you start to find that you can predict where there may be difficulties ahead, looking at how the relationship is unfolding, how many times they’re criticizing each other, how many times they’re making negative comments. So, how can we look at team processes in a similar way and predict where the problems may occur and then, try to prevent them from manifesting into a mission-threatening conflict or where crew would start to lose morale. So, these are all multiple areas that we try to bring together. So, no one solution will be the answer, but multiple ways of looking at what’s the best team to put together? If we have to put together a team that may not work well together, how do we mitigate the risk of that manifesting into a mission-threatening conflict?

Host: I have a feeling that working for a team or with a team that’s looking at how a team can work best together, might be one of the better teams to work for. That’s not bad. Do you find, Aaron, when it comes to like how the organization is structured and working with all these professionals that are looking at how best to work well with one another. That’s not bad, from a management perspective.

Aaron Allcorn: We are blessed with a great team, and it is — it’s a lot of fun to come to work, and it’s a lot of fun to work with these individuals we got. We got a lot of work on our plate, so we’re always very busy, but it’s always pleasant, the folks we work with, yeah.

Host: Tell me more about the organizational structure of the element itself, the way — I mean, we talked about a bunch of different areas that really cover the human factors and behavioral performance. So, what’s the way your organization is structured, and where do those lines flow and what’s important to you in how you set up things?

Aaron Allcorn: Yeah, we talked about kind of the — kind of the partnership of management side, as well as the science side. And so, we do that not only at the element level, but our element’s split into four different portfolios, and we do the same thing there, where we have a portfolio manager that really tracks budgets, schedule — works those types of issues with the — with the principal investigators, and then allows the — and we have a discipline scientist also in that particular area, so they focus on the more technical, scientific things. So, that’s — we’re structured that way at the portfolio level, as well.

Host: So, yeah, making sure — because the organization has funds to conduct the science, and it sounds like it’s not all entirely in house. We’re working with analogs around the world, different places where we can go and test some of these ideas of team dynamics. But when it comes to actually working international, internationally and with other universities, what’s that like, from the ground level? Just making sure that — I mean, it’s all here at Johnson Space Center, sure, but then it sounds like it’s much wider than that. What’s it like working with a global team?

Aaron Allcorn: Yeah, the management is at Johnson Space Center. Well, and part of our management is at Ames Research Center, as well.

Host: I see.

Aaron Allcorn: And so, we partner with other, and we have partners as well at Glenn Research Center that contribute to our — contribute to our research. But a lot of the research is done by universities, so we will have a solicitation for some of these research gaps that are remaining, and different university professors or researchers will respond and provide a proposal on how they would help us buy down this risk in this particular area, and those will be reviewed at the science — by the science team and selected. And so, we have researchers that will be selected from around the country that are participating in contributing to our risk reduction.

Host: So, Tom, you’ve mentioned risk reduction, in the sense of counter-measures. You know, you’re identifying, you’re looking at how these teams can work best together, and you even talked about at what point would you implement a counter-measure? What’s an example of a counter-measure in this situation, particularly in a behavioral performance — that one sounded pretty interesting — but human factors, as well?

Tom Williams: So, one example would be what we do assessments of cognitive capabilities. So, we’ve had one team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, David Dinges and his team, and Matthias Basner, develop for us a cognition battery. So, some of the existing ways that we would assess cognitive ability, much like if you went and got a neuropsychological assessment, the problem with most existing measures was that astronauts are high-performing, and they were topping out. So, they were scoring so high, we never knew how much higher they might have gone had we had a test that was normed to astronauts. So, what we’ve worked on is developing a cognitive measure that is normed for astronauts, and that alerts us then to potential changes, and each one of the tests — we have ten different tests on this cognition battery, and each one of the tests is mapped into an area of the brain. And the way that a cognitive battery is used on station if there, God forbid, was an accident, and you needed to — a flight surgeon needed to assess what impact has this had on the crew member, then you could do a cognitive assessment and determine which part of the brain might have been most impacted by whatever injury occurred. And then, you could implement some kind of — either medication or some kind of rehabilitation necessary to bring that up. Or you could assess maybe CO2 levels are too high, and that’s starting to impact on their cognitive processing, and then a counter-measure would be, of course, to bring the CO2 levels back down. So, looking for what is changing, and then what do we think is accounting for the change, and the counter-measure mitigates the risk. So, a counter-measure can be — it could be a technology, like we talked about with the human capability for autonomous systems. So, maybe a cognitive aid is then introduced to help the crew member for — perform the task, based on the assessment or the need. It could be a clinical guideline that says, given this level, we now need to implement something. It could be close to what we described on, with Noshir Contractor on the team processes. We start to see increased team conflict mentioning, so we introduce some team building exercises with the flight surgeon. So, what we do is we look at guidelines, technology, capabilities, maybe an onboard system where it’s like an avatar or some — like an online therapist of sorts that the individual could interact with, to then mitigate some of the impact of the spaceflight.

Host: Would these people be integrated into normal operations? I mean, it might be a little bit different when you get to — when you get farther out, and you have that communication delay. But aside from the research component of thinking about this ahead of time, what may they need? Do you have someone like that, sitting in mission control?

Tom Williams: Part of the — there are flight surgeons and behavioral health and performance specialists, operational psychologists who interact with the crew on a periodic basis, and a lot of what we develop, we listen to what their needs are, and then develop techniques for the ability to meet that need. So, for example, the cognition battery gives them an enhanced capability to assess across multiple areas of performance versus the onboard system that we have today. So, and they’re assessing how to bring that capability on board, what the impact may be? So, that’s where we’ll look at what do we currently have, in terms of the processes with the behavioral health and performance operational psychologists, and how do we support them by bringing a technology, a guideline, a capability that they’ve identified they need, or the research has informed us would help them.

Host: There you go. So, it’s working with the crew, yes, so that they’re informed, but then also with mission control, so that they understand these behavioral performance ideas, and if there were a situation like you described, that they have that information, that process, ready in hand.

Tom Williams: Yes.

Host: Now, this is — you know, I don’t believe that this element is siloed. Right? it’s not just human factors and behavioral performance, and we stick to our lane, and we press forward. How are you working with some of the other elements across HRP?

Tom Williams: OK. Yeah. One of the great integrated aspects of what we’re working on now is, it’s called the CBS. It’s short for the CNS changes that we expect may occur as a result of space radiation exposure.

Host: CNS is cognitive?

Tom Williams: I’m sorry. The central nervous system.

Host: The central nervous system.

Tom Williams: Right.

Host: OK.

Tom WIlliams: And the behavioral medicine effects that we may see, so that the cognitive changes that may accrue due to isolation and confinement and the sensory motor effects that may come about because of altered gravity. So, those are three different elements — the space radiation element, our human factors and behavioral performance for the b med risk, and the health and human counter-measures for the sensory motor risk. And as you think about the hazards that we’ve talked about in previous podcasts, we have a human in the center of all those hazards, and so it would be really important for us to understand how might these three hazards come together, because all three are interacting in some way on your cognitive or behavioral performance capabilities. So, if you have a change in your central nervous system, or you have a change in your neurovestibular system, how might that manifest into some behavioral change that would be important? And what’s really interesting is when you think about how this would relate to some of the requirements that we have on Earth. We have neurovestibular changes that occur as we age. We have cognitive changes that may occur as we age, as well. When those two things are going together, how might we be able to predict in what way we can help people on Earth by looking at how these processes are being impacted in spaceflight and what type of counter-measure or what type of quick rehabilitation can we use, and might these help in some way? Just as an example, we’re working with one Harvard neurologist who’s identified pathways where they’re stimulating a pathway on a post-stroke patient to try to accelerate the recovery of some of the capabilities post-stroke. So part of our CBS integrated approach is to look at brain performance pathways. So, we’re leveraging a lot of the data from the investment that NASA and the Human Research Program has made, putting that together into a computational model, to then predict, based on these different exposures of radiation, altered gravity exposure, or stress, how do those come together, get manifested into some kind of behavioral performance change that we can map into which part of the brain, to then predict and preempt some kind of decrement in performance, and how do we establish where those levels of performance that are acceptable are?

Host: That is interesting. It’s the process of coming up with how to analyze these changes, that you take that process, and you implement it into something that is very, very much real here on Earth. But you said post-stroke victims?

Tom Williams: Yes.

Host: That is incredible, is the process of coming up with the research. Do you find that integration pretty common, Aaron, when it comes to doing this research for spaceflight? You already mentioned an example yourself, and then bringing it back here to Earth. You know, do you find that happens pretty frequently?

Aaron Allcorn: Yes, and I think the — it’s probably more and more, as we’re — as the research is converging, and we’re — all the different elements of looking at counter-measures, we want to make sure our counter-measures are in agreement with one another, I guess? You know, I’m thinking of exercise, or I’m thinking of a medication that might be prescribed, and what might be good for one thing might hurt another thing. So, it will be — as our research comes together, and other elements research comes together, it would be important to optimize those, I think.

Host: This is where communication comes really into effect, because you want to — if you’re going to implement a counter-measure, you don’t — want to make sure it’s actually going to cause another problem that’s going to need another counter-measure. This was something that actually Jenn Fogarty mentioned in part one in this series when it comes to counter-measures. Tell me about working more with other elements and other researchers to make sure that if you do come up with an idea, of the counter-measure, like you described, Tom, that it’s not going to have more negative effects downstream.

Tom Williams: Yeah, it’s a great question, because one of the things we’ve looked at in some of the CBS research is looking at animal models, and of course, we use animal models in exposing them to different levels of radiation, and one of our researchers, who’s Susannah Rossi at the University of San Francisco, has identified that there’s a substance, and it’s in human clinical trials now — PLX5622 is the precise name — and using that in animals will neutralize some of the effects of radiation exposure on the brain. So, in that central nervous system, the effects that we get concerned about, when you expose the animals to this substance, it wipes out that effect, but at a cost to the immune system. The microglia are the actual impact that’s impacted — the microglia are impacted, and that’s what we’re most concerned about. But what happens then is the immune system becomes more vulnerable to an opportunistic infection. And so, then that activates — we’ve taken care of one risk potentially, the effects of the space radiation on the central nervous system, but now we’ve increased the potential risk of another. And that’s the opportunistic infection that we already know you’ll hear from some of our health and human counter-measures team about the importance of that immune process. So, we have to be very careful, just as Aaron was noting, about introducing one counter-measure, and inadvertently causing an increased risk in another capability that we hadn’t determined ahead of time. And that’s why it’s so important to now take a look at these integrated counter-measures and the integrated approaches, so that we don’t have what sometimes is referred to as a black swan, something we should have realized in retrospect was likely to occur that had some big outcome, and that’s what we’re really striving to avoid.

Host: So, it seems like one of the more different things when it comes to this type of research is you do all this research, and you’re trying to answer these questions, and when you do come up with a counter-measure, that may not exactly solve, or it may cause something else downstream. So, it seems like you do have to have that integration, to make sure you’re incorporating all of these different minds, all of these different disciplines, so that you’re not — you have the right solution. The first thing that comes to mind is — I mean, I worked in large teams before. Not super easy. Everyone has their own idea about what solution to implement. So, when it comes to working with large teams, and coming up with an idea of this is the best course of action for spaceflight, I’m sure, you know, it’s a hard thing. It’s difficult for everyone to come together and agree on something like that.

Aaron Allcorn: Sure, there’s a lot of healthy discussion, I think. And that’s probably — a lot of that around here, but we have one goal. We have the same mission and the end goal in mind. So, I think everybody kind of keys in on that, and we’re trying to do what is best to protect our crew member overall. And so.

Host: Yeah. So, how have you seen, Tom, when it comes to conducting this type of research, the human factors and behavioral performance, how have you seen that progress through the years, and what we’ve done in the past, and how that’s evolved into how we think about how to conduct this type of research?

Tom Williams: I really believe that a lot of the lines of our human factor research is we’ve invested in a great opportunity, and a lot of that science is maturing for us now, and it’s coming to make the contribution that was anticipated when it was first funded. So, a number of our studies, as they’re now delivering the results, are helping us to now look at a more integrated approach on a human system integration architecture. So, how do the five human factors areas — the training that we talked about, the mission processes and tasks, the habitat, which we haven’t really talked about that much — but how do we ensure that there’s a smart habitat that’s responsive to the crew’s needs and helps sustain them? And some of the human automated robotic integration and human-computer integration, those are now coming together nicely for us, in a human system integration architecture. So, we — just as you were describing, we shouldn’t keep trying to keep siloes, because the crew will experience these in an integrated fashion. How do we ensure our science delivers the capability in the way the crew will need to experience that? And that’s one of the areas that we see maturing. The investments that have been made by the Human Research Program is now maturing in many of these lanes, to bring us to a capability that we say, OK, this is an acceptable level of risk.

Host: There it is, yes, that — it’s that integration. Like you said, the crews are going to experience — I like that. The crews going to experience not in these different siloes of research. They just are going to experience their environment, as it is, and you have to make sure that all of these different elements are combined together. Aaron, when you’re thinking about — we’re coming up on 20 years of continuous human habitation on the space station. It’s a long time, and it’s not the only time that people have been in space. We’re talking about decades, even before that. What excites you the most about what — how things have progressed with that continuous duration? That’s a lot of research. That’s a lot of data that we can get, from learning how humans can live and work in space. What excites you the most?

Aaron Allcorn: Yeah. Well, I love the impacts that we have back here on Earth, for one. And for another, I — you know, we’re not just wanting to stay on low Earth orbit. We want to send people to explore out even further. And so, taking those next steps, and what can we learn from our astronauts who have been in low Earth orbit, that kind of we can take with us, to — for longer duration missions.

Host: Yeah. I mean, low Earth orbit. That’s where we’ve been, really, mainly. And when it comes to — if you’re thinking back to the Apollo era, when we were last on the Moon, that was a long time ago, and they were there for very short durations. A lot of guests I had referred to them as camping trips. That’s how short they were. But coming up in the near future, there’s a lot of opportunity for longer duration, for more human research focus, when it comes to people on the Moon. So, Tom, what excites you more about, you know, what questions do we still have that maybe the Moon can help us answer?

Tom Williams: That’s a great question, because a lot of what the Artemis mission will offer us is the ability to kind of look at some of those habitats, potentially. A crew in this 1/6th environment, if they sleep on the Moon, will their circadian and sleep patterns be different in a microgravity versus a 1/6th gravity? Again, the habitats that we would construct, and there’s a visual perception change that occurs on the Moon, because of the lack of an atmosphere, how might that change perceptual processing, and how does that alter over time? Do you adapt to that? Do you not adapt to it? So, those are some important questions that would help us get answered on the Moon. And just the effects of an increased exposure to radiation, because there will be a slight increase to the radiation exposure that you’ll encounter on the Moon, as compared to even on station today.

Host: Now, normally, I think that would be an awesome place to end, but you did mention habitats, when it comes to the Moon. And I know we’re doing research on the ground, in several of the analogs actually that Aaron actually mentioned. So, what are we — what kinds of research are we doing there that may help us, when it comes to the Moon?

Tom WIlliams: That’s a great question, again. So, one of the things that came up about 18 months ago was the need for private crew quarters on long duration missions. And there was a lot of opinions about what was needed, but no science to back it up. So, one of the things that we had the capability to do is, we leveled science requirements on the research operations and integration team to reconfigure the HERA habitat, and to remove the private crew quarters, so that we could start assessing the impact in an analog, of four crew members who no longer have private sleeping areas, and we reduced some of the volume, to bring it closer to what they’ll experience, in terms of habitat, net habitable volume, that they’ll have on the gateway. So, those two major changes help us, on the ground, put humans in a similar confined environment, and we brought in several stowage bags that looked very much like you would experience on station, reducing the privacy of the crew quarters. And now, we’re starting to get the research accumulated, to determine, does it really matter. And then, that will help ensure that, as we move forward, whether there’s a demonstrated need for the private crew quarters, or not, or a private area. So, it will help us bring science. That doesn’t mean that’s the final decision, but that means a decision maker will have the informed ability to determine a mass weight volume trade-off on private crew quarters versus none.

Host: That is significant, because naturally, if everyone gets their own room, that’s more space. That’s more things you’ve got to build. You’ve got to build enough rooms for everyone. So, I’m sure, you know, that’s design challenges that engineers are going to have to deal with, if it comes down to maybe everyone needs their own room. But knowing that ahead of time is super important.

Tom Williams: Exactly.

Host: Plus the Moon will be a great place to test some stuff out too, right?

Tom Williams: Right.

Host: Because after that, the next thing is Mars. It gets a whole lot harder there but understanding that and getting that data on the Moon will be very vital. Aaron and Tom, thank you so much for coming on, and talking about human factors and behavioral performance. This was enlightening. I absolutely enjoyed it, and it was a pleasure to have you both.

Tom Williams: Great, thank you.

Aaron Allcorn: Thank you.

[ Music ]

Host: Hey, thanks for sticking around. Great pleasure it was, talking to Aaron Allcorn and Tom Williams today. Fascinating discussion on human factors and behavioral performance. This is part two of our six-part series on the Human Research Program. There’s a lot more to come. You can check out episode one by going to nasa.gov/podcast. You can check out our podcast and the episode beforehand. Our many other episodes, or any of the other podcasts we’ve had at nasa.gov. If you want to learn more about the Human Research Program, that’s nasa.gov/hrp. You can figure out more about them, and how to get involved in some of their science. On social media, we are on the NASA Johnson Space Center accounts of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Use the hashtag #AskNASA on your favorite platform to submit an idea. Just make sure to mention it’s for Houston, We Have a Podcast. This episode was recorded on November 19, 2019. Thanks to Alex Perryman, Greg Wiseman, Pat Ryan, Norah Moran, Belinda Pulido, Jennifer Hernandez, Brett Redden, Emmalee Mauldin and the Human Research Program team for helping to bring this all together. Thanks again to Aaron Allcorn and Tom Williams for taking the time to come on the show. We’ll be back next week.