| Have you ever walked into
work one day thinking that you had a situation well in
hand, only to be met with something far beyond your wildest
imagination? Something like this happened to me in the
late summer of 1993. We were ready to implement the upcoming
Space Life Sciences (SLS-2) Spacelab mission on the Shuttle.
Crews were finishing training and preflight activities.
Ground teams were readying for the conduct of the mission.
Management was finalizing reviews to assure readiness
for flight. We had done several Spacelab flights including
a not-so-distant SLS-1 flight. At last it looked like
Space Life Sciences research was on the "right" track.
The entire team was well versed in the upcoming flight
because the tasks, procedures, and approaches had all
At the same time, a parallel universe was unfolding. The
U.S. had entered into a bi-lateral arrangement with Russia
of flying a U.S. astronaut on the Mir Orbital Station,
as well as establishing the working infrastructure in
support of the emerging International Space Station reconfiguration.
Our small science payloads management team had been tasked
with initiating and developing the processes and techniques
for interfacing with the Russian team for the integration
of U.S. research.
that we couldn't apply Systems Engineering practices;
we just had never encountered them in this format.
We were made up of a young team of project leads and
engineers that was used to the Space Shuttle/Spacelab
processes. In fact, we had developed Systems Engineering
tools that helped govern the team's success on previous
Shuttle flights. But we were not experienced in Russian
culture, technical styles and standards, or in approaches
for long-duration space flight.
As a single flight to Mir expanded to 10 flights -- including
expanded research objectives and outfitting Russian modules
with 2000 kilograms of gear -- none of us were ready for
the chaos that erupted when we realized the extent of
the work required to implement the Phase 1 Mir Research
program on the schedule laid before us.
|Interior of the
SLS-2 Spacelab research laboratory module. Click
image for closer view.
Now, try not to read too much into this... it wasn't
that we couldn't apply Systems Engineering practices;
we just had never encountered them in this format. For
starters we had no translated or agreed upon process
and requirements documentation to work from. Our hardware
was still in fabrication. Our protocols for identifying
scope were "in principal" at best and not fully laid
out. We were also dealing with significant differences
in culture and technical approaches for space flight.
Common sense dictated an implementation plan with
schedules and templates and interdependencies. We tried,
but each day was a new dawn. In some cases, several
dawns occurred over a 24-hour period -- nine time zones
separated Houston from Moscow. Schedules obviously had
to be written in pencil. Most days, my desk was where
I was standing -- running. The key documentation that
governed Russian standards for hardware acceptance and
integration into the Mir were mistranslated. This fact
was not fully understood until 3 months later and much
closer to flight. The templates established for joint
review of technical content were optimistic and unaware
of the hidden time lags because of translation problems
and failure to account for travel between the U.S. and
Russia. None of our prior experiences prepared us for
the Russian Acceptance Tests.
The scope and purpose of the documents were laborious
and unclear but still had to be reviewed in detail prior
to physical testing. Testing standards were always subject
to interpretation by the Russian representative. This
was further exacerbated by the unstated, unavailable,
and indeterminable electrical standards for grounding
and electromagnetic interference.
performing cardiovascular experiments.
All aspects of the tasks were challenging. Hardware
that was previously approved for Shuttle flights had
to be reworked, certified and accepted for use on Mir.
Procedures for operating the devices had to be translated
and then reworked to Russian standards and acceptance.
Crew training approaches had to be realigned and ground
processing of payloads occurred twice -- once to U.S.
standards, once to Russian. The shipment of payloads
had to endure temperatures from negative 50 to plus
50 degrees Celsius and shock loads of up to 20 g's,
as well as the ever-evolving Russian Customs departments.
None of these were U.S. Shuttle standard experiences.
Negotiations and deliberations had to be conducted
on both sides of the Atlantic using State Department
processes for invitations, travel, and clearances, done
of course with the use of translators and interpreters.
And this was all happening at the same time we were
learning to communicate, understand, and trust each
other as to our respective intentions, motivations,
and expectations. And yet we made it! We conducted an
impressively successful research effort on Mir, and
without incurring any significant international incidents.
How was this possible?
I believe that we were successful because the U.S.
and Russian teams quickly realized that success was
the outcome we both sought. Despite all our other differences,
we both held high standards for processing flight payloads
for missions and believed that reaching an understanding
of the payloads components and function was achievable.
Despite all other differences, we both recognized that
the value of collaboration in pursuit of our national
objectives was a more productive approach than inflexibility
in standards and approaches. And, despite often feeling
like strangers in a strange land, our U.S. team recognized
that we were guests on their platform and thus had to
put forward the good will required to get over so many
As for the standard project practices, there were zealots
on the U.S. and Russian sides that demanded total compliance
to pre-existing rules. Indeed, we had to initiate calculated
measures to stretch the letter of the rule to allow for
innovation and forgiveness. Processes for hardware development
required management teams on both sides to rethink their
tactical perspective of "does it stay compliant with all
previous required standards" to "how does this process
aid this payload to successfully move through the system."
It required engineers to rethink their "solving problems
via technical solutions first" to "knowing the counterpart
socially then together tackling technical solutions together."
And, most of all, it required a great deal of flexibility
in NASA management to allow choice regarding adherence
to formal practices versus a requirement. Russian management
teams also had to yield from rigid structures to flexible
approaches to assure the intent of the agreed-upon flight
program to succeed.
that we were successful because the U.S. and Russian
teams quickly realized that success was the outcome
we both sought.
Our team eventually saw the chaos we experienced as
a gateway into a new and unknown environment. Through
our deliberate efforts to explore and understand these
new conditions, we found that chaos could be managed
and remolded to accomplish the objective.
There were many other details, frustrations overcome,
and challenges worked on the fly for the team and project
to be successful. But we stayed focused on the end goal
and chose to ride the wave we were on. So then, take
a walk on the wild side of practice. You may never know
what creativity you can forge out of chaos.
- In uncertain and changing situations the only way
to win is to adopt a win-win approach.
- Successful teams have long recognized that ongoing
collaboration, based on recognition of mutual interdependence,
is required in order to adapt easily to new requirements,
respond quickly to frequent problems, and avoid conflicts.
Would you say that the lessons are applicable only to
a few similar cases? Or, would you say that while the
specifics of the situation differ from project to project,
many underlying root causes that demand cooperation and
adaptability are quite common?
Search by lesson to find more on:
Stegemoeller is currently Manager for Human
Space Life Sciences Programs Office at Johnson Space
Center. He is responsible for the organization and
direction of the Human Exploration and Development
in Space Enterprise Lead Center programs for Biomedical
Research and Countermeasure, Advanced Human Support
Technology, and the Space Medicine crosscutting
function. He graduated from Texas A&M University
in 1985 with a B.S in Industrial Engineering and
began work at Johnson Space Center that June in
the Comptroller's Office. Charlie is also an esteemed
member of the ASK Review Board.