Friday, March 4, 2011

Listening to NASA

One of the many things I loved about Mary Roach's most recent book Packing For Mars was her ode to NASA TV.  I could watch it all day, and back when I was writing a dissertation or otherwise stuck in an empty house working for hours on end, I sometimes did.

What's so cool about NASA TV?  Luckily, a bit of afternoon downtime here in a Dallas airport hotel waiting for my conference meetings to begin has allowed me to enumerate them.

  • Transparency.  Man, if only the whole government worked like this.  Every communication transmitted, every camera available.  We can see the whole operation at work in real time.
  • Pinpoint planning.  Man, if only my life worked like this.  I'd love to have a Mission Control reading out the steps for me to do the tasks that need to get done, and working out alternate equally as detailed procedures on the fly when things don't work as planned.
  • Mind/body.  And I'd love to have a job that's as cerebral as astronaut but still have much of my day devoted to assembling stuff with tools.  The fact that the vastness of space, one of the most potent ideas and experiences the mind could ever come to grips with, is met directly with wrenches and foam and the material world -- stuff that has to fit and move right and hang together.
  • A place for everything.  Today's broadcast focused to an enormous extent on where different bits and bobs of things should be put.  An astronaut opens and bag and finds one more bracket than expected.  Where should that bracket go?  Ask Mission Control, they huddle, then fire back an answer: Bag 102-D in the airlock behind the close-out.  Why does it matter?  Because every single thing in space might turn out to be useful, and somebody's got to keep track of where it all is so when needed, it can be found.
  • Collaboration without guesswork.  The ground control folks work with the astronauts to come up with plans when the preset plans aren't quite sufficient, but it all has to be absolutely out in the open: We propose you do this, you counter-propose, we confirm and have you read it back.  Nothing left to chance.  Everybody knows what's been agreed to.  It's on record.  We can go back and replay it if there's any question about what we decided to do.
Wonder if there are any lessons in NASA TV for how we ought to work together down here?  Even if that's a stretch, it doesn't make NASA TV any less awesome.  I find myself trying to problem-solve and keep track of issues as I listen along with the crew and controllers.  When every piece has been picked up and put away, every question provided with an answer, I feel as satisfied as if I've just read a perfectly-plotted short story.

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