Good news/bad news: The Columbia disaster has brought renewed attention to spaceflight, but so far, much of that attention lacks any real clarity of understanding. Rather than train the spotlight on our space program’s fairly desperate need for both funding and vision, Columbia seems to have ushered in open season on NASA. Congressional hearings rehash hoary old debates about the value of our space program, chastizing the agency and calling for hastily conceived reforms. Many people with whom I’ve been privileged to work closely inside and around NASA share my concern that we may be on the verge of making irreversible decisions that future generations will regret. The Bush administration’s announcement of a redirection of the space program, which was pending at press time, may address some issues raised by the Columbia investigation, but it’s sure to miss some more fundamental problems, problems that are deep, structural and, if you believe in the value of space exploration, critical to our place in the 21st century.
THE “KNOWLEDGE CAPTURE” PROBLEM
In a decade of professional practice in large-scale urban, medical and institutional architecture, I have always started any new project with an investigation into institutional memory. I need to know how previous programs arrived at their final designs before I feel qualified to propose next-generation solutions. But almost immediately after I arrived at NASA in 1997, I learned that trying to gather such information in the 18,000-employee, 16-facility agency was tough going. The standard response when I requested data on old projects was a quizzical stare. As I began working on the design of the TransHab, an inflatable habitat for long crew expeditions like a Mars mission, I realized I needed solid dimensions for Skylab interiors and furnishings. Those drawings always seemed archived somewhere beyond reach. Eventually I just went over to the Skylab 1G Trainer at Space Center Houston’s visitor center with a tape measure and some gum-soled shoes. I’m sure it gave a few tourists a real thrill to come into the Trainer exhibit and find me dangling from the ceiling.
In its collective knowledge and in the individual history and experience of its employees, NASA is a unique, living national treasure of know-how. But the know-how is frustratingly hard to access. Think of NASA as a computer with
virtually no interface and rusty hard drives. Furthermore, its storage media are getting old: The only American men and women who have ever successfully designed and flown a spacecraft are retired or retiring; many others are no longer with us. Without a conscious program of mentoring within the organization, this knowledge is only intermittently and imperfectly transmitted to new generations of engineers and scientists. The result is that young engineers constantly redesign programs without being aware that previous designs for the same item already exist. They may thereby introduce a new problem or layer of risk, and this gets to the
What NASA needs to do is establish an active mentoring program, whereby new hires are apprenticed to senior technical staff for a certain period of time; allow real engineers (not a recruiting team) to select graduate students for internships; and open a direct line between each project office and the central archives so that records of a team’s decision-
making process and detailed information on the final
product are readily available.
But even these measures won’t fully address the squandering of hard-won expertise, because the problem isn’t confined to a failure of archiving. Any team that takes on a project is going to amass some truly valuable information. What happens then? At NASA, more often than not, project teams get disbanded and people with unique knowledge get poached away. Whereas other industries actively encourage the capture of knowledge in team environments—where the sum of knowledge is measurably greater than any individual effort—NASA seems unaware of the value of a stable, successful team and its ability to store, transmit, and use accumulated knowledge.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.