| To say that the Russian
Space Program's (RSA) approach to space flight is different
than NASA's is at best an understatement. I had the opportunity
to experience some of this difference firsthand in late
December 1996, while working with our Russian counterparts
to prepare for the launch of Bion 11. This was the ninth
mission in the COSMOS/Bion series and the first conducted
under a bilateral NASA/RSA contract.
This mission was different from earlier ones in that it
was our first joint mission, whereas on prior missions
we flew as invited guests. This time we had control of
50 percent of the science payload. Earlier missions had
covered a range of experimental models: everything from
simple cell cultures to non-human primates. The purpose
of this current mission was to study the physiological
effects of flight on two 4- to 5-kg. male rhesus monkeys.
NASA's role, in addition to specific scientific research
goals, was to develop the bioinstrumentation and to work
with our Russian counterparts to ensure that it was fully
functional when integrated into the spacecraft. A striking
indication that this was a different world from anything
I'd experienced at NASA occurred when we got to the Plesetsk
Cosmodrome in northern Russia where the launch took place.
It was December and the conditions in northern Russia
during winter are obviously quite cold. Even so, this
was an exceptional time. All of northern Europe was in
the grip of a fierce winter storm, so the temperatures
outside were especially harsh and the snow quite deep.
On one occasion, while returning to the base late in the
evening, the snow was falling so heavily we couldn't see
more than a few feet in front of the bus, and snowdrifts
on the road were piled up as high as the hood. That the
driver could see the road, could keep the bus on the road,
and got us safely back to our quarters struck me as a
|The Bion program
flew biological experiments using primates, rodents,
insects, cells, and plants on an unmanned biosatellite
in near-earth orbit.
What was also remarkable about this episode was that none
of our Russian counterparts seemed to regard the bus ride
as anything out of the ordinary. Understand correctly,
in no way am I trying to suggest their attitudes were
cavalier. What is "remarkable," I think, is how their
composure reflected the "get-the-job-done" culture of
the Russian Space Program. Blizzards, sub-zero temperatures,
hazardous road conditions, these were certainly obstacles
to overcome, but did they ever weaken anyone's resolve?
You never heard so much as a complaint.
We saw this kind of stoic resolve throughout the project.
One of the most impressive examples was when they had
to deal with assembly and integration procedures to mount
a top cover to one of their enclosures. The Russians found
out they were short three screws so someone on their team
found a box of parts, dumped them out, fished through
them until they found three screws that fit, and we were
back in business.
At NASA you can visualize a more "resource intensive"
environment where the screws would arrive in certified
containers with a specific screw for each position and
mounds of paperwork verifying each part's heritage back
to the quarry.
Despite our cultural and work-related differences, we
worked effectively with our Russian counterparts. Why?
I would say the main reason was that together we approached
the project as a unified team in the strongest sense of
the word, meaning we shared the same goal of bringing
off a successful mission. The two sub-teams were able
to function as one united and effective team, overcoming
the natural obstacles of an advanced technological endeavor.
The key to this was collocation.
| The bond
and trust we established by working together, as
well as suffering together, cannot be overstated.
The bond and trust we established by working together,
as well as suffering together, cannot be overstated. It
was a tremendous improvement to be able to talk directly
with them as a problem arose. For instance, on the night
of the launch there appeared to be a technical glitch
and we were called down to the launch facility from the
hotel where we were staying. At first the Russians suspected
it was an issue with our hardware. We could look at the
equipment, discuss it with them, and we were able to establish
categorically -- to everyone's satisfaction -- that it
was not our hardware.
Could we have achieved this as quickly and pleasantly
as we did via distance? I will venture an opinion that
our collocation under these austere conditions went a
long way to warm their ears to what we said.
|The Setting of
the Bion 11 Project. Click image for closer view.
While we had some differences of opinion along the way,
in part because there were fundamental differences in
our approaches, overall the mission was a success. It
was quite an education for me, working within the Russian
system and seeing how differently they address and resolve
problems. The take-away lesson for me was the realization
that you can arrive at success in many different ways.
The Russian procedures, while much less paper intensive
and seemingly more accepting of risk than the U.S. methods,
have been quite successful. The modified Soyuz rocket
and Cosmos/Bion spacecraft have a success ratio in the
range of 98%. While I wouldn't go so far as to embrace
their methods, there is certainly something we can learn
from their experience and attitude that limited resources
are a challenge, not a showstopper.
- There is always more than one way to complete a
project on time and on cost.
- Collocation helps to overcome cultural differences
between individual members and provides the entire
team with a unified sense of purpose.
When is paperwork an indication of an orderly process,
and when is it a reflection of mistrust?
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Skidmore is the Manager of the Sensors 2000!
(S2K!) Program and is the Technology Development
Manager for the Life Sciences Division at NASA's
Ames Research Center. S2K! generates development
opportunities by integrating available technologies
and technological needs from disparate science,
engineering, and operational organizations within
NASA, in other government agencies, and in academia.