Countdown Sequence Start
This is a parallel post linking to the Indiana Space Grant Consortium post at https://insgc-bc.blogspot.com/2018/09/countdown-sequence-start.html
I started seriously thinking about the countdown when we hit 600. (I even started a blog entry about it, but I didn’t manage to finish it until we were crossing 500.) At 400, it became obvious that regular meetings would be needed and important. At 350, I created a timer. Now, as we approach 300, I can start to hear the ticking in my head.
July 20, 2019.
The 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, and especially the moon landing, is a primary emphasis of my administrative and engagement work for this year. It touches many of my connections on the Purdue campus, as well as multiple existing partnerships and new conversations around the State of Indiana. In one sense, I am reminded of my preparations for race day when I was involved in competitive rowing as a coxswain, dozens of years (and pounds) ago. Race preparation obviously doesn’t start when you get in the boat a half hour before you hit the starting line. Often, the planning process works backwards: if we want to be ready to row that race on that day, what do we have to do today? What skills and drills do we emphasize? What specific contingencies do we practice? What can I learn about my boat (not just the physical craft, but the four or eight people who rely on me to steer straight, make the right decision, and earn their trust) right now, that will make the difference days or weeks hence?
I still find myself adopting that preparation model for events: lectures for class, public interview and presentation opportunities, project management for the lab or a research team or Space Grant activities. The process gets more intricate and the need to connect gets stronger as the scale gets larger. How do I channel that passion well? What is the elegant set of plans and preparations that allows me to use today to get us closer to excellent execution on that day that seems both far off and approaching way too fast. The more we discuss among our Mission Operations “consoles,” the more I recall how deeply I feel the importance and impact of December 1968 – July 1969, the first time we left Earth. I am also more acutely aware that not everyone feels this, and the purpose of this celebration is not just to get everyone to connect to Apollo 8 or Apollo 11 the way I do (“my favorite thing”). We must explore and connect how many different ways people to connect to the variety of inspirations and experiences of exploration – aviation, space, scientific discovery, engineering innovation, inspiration and engagement and education of various types for each unique individual and her or his special pattern of resonance.
This charge, more than any other, underscores the need I feel for a palette of events, rather than simply focusing on a single signature activity. Neil flew a variety of aircraft from his childhood through his return from the Moon; as a student, he played in the band and built and flew model airplanes. By the time Purdue was celebrating its centennial in 1969, Indiana had already played an outsized and varied role in aerospace history (which many people still do not fully appreciate). Balloons were employed to deliver airmail before the Civil War. The Wright family lived here, in Hagerstown; Wilbur was born there. Aircraft engines for World War I and II were built here, and critical training for aviators (including the famed Tuskegee Airmen) was led by those born, or living, or trained in Indiana. Amelia Earhart worked here, inspiring women to fly and get their technical training. All of that was in place before a youth from Wapakoneta, OH decided to enroll at Purdue, overlapping with a slightly older student from Mitchell, IN, who both had dreams to fly. Every one of these stories is about dedication and planning and preparation.
Why do I take this so seriously, and worry about the countdown so much? Unexpectedly, on the way back from the National Space Grant Directors meeting (this year, during a beautiful late summer oasis in Vermont), I got an answer – serendipitously, while writing this entry. New colleagues from another Space Grant consortium saw my pins and stickers, and asked about their effectiveness in stimulating interest and engagement and enthusiasm for Space Grant programs. Conversation drifted to strategies for engagement with FIRST Robotics… after a few minutes, another passenger comes over. She’s a scientist, and passionate about FIRST and STEM education, and we end up having a good conversation about our Space Grant mission. Since I still consider myself something of an introvert, this type of conversation is what preparation helps me do well.
But, over the next 306 days, there will be more people, and more opportunities, and more connections, all to get from imagining to planning to excellent execution. Each day has new opportunities for meeting challenges and enabling achievements, as well as the need to maintain wariness against
March 23, 2020
Guidance, Navigation, and Communication
This is the most normal contact I’ve had today. Thanks for this bit of structure.
While this was not how or where I expected this blog entry to start, after a long absence. However, these comments are especially notable for me, since they came not from one, but two different people in two different online meetings in two distinct research project contexts. They were notable not because I was doing something uniquely innovative or novel, but exactly because I was doing something relatively mundane: regular weekly meetings with my students, and regularly scheduled project updates with my research team. Yes, there were a few technical hiccups, as there often are, but for the most part, they functioned as we always expect them to function.
And that, in a nutshell, was what was most appreciated today. I think it is no exaggeration to say that very few people alive today remember a similar period of rapid shift from normal to unprecedented, with such a sense of vertigo as we collectively stare into a social, economic, and cultural abyss. But that is not where I want to focus my emphasis in this entry; there are plenty of places to talk about that. I want to talk more about what we in the lab have been learning this year, which has become unexpectedly one of the most valuable possible lessons for me (and maybe others, but I will let them be the judges of that).
Fall 2019 was really busy. I was teaching my two courses (Perspectives on Systems Engineering, or PoSE, as well as Work Analysis and Design) with a bit over 200 students in total. Two students were finishing their dissertations (Megan on Cybersecurity Incident Response Teams, and Jordan on Spaceflight Mission Support Operations Teams), and three more grad students (and an undergrad) were joining—two from a different department with different cultures and traditions of graduate progress. I was also faculty advisor to the professional society student chapter. Add that to my normal level of travel (Japan in August, London in September, Washington DC and Seattle on consecutive weeks in October), and our regular habit of individual meetings (written as “1:1” in my calendar) just sort of fell by the wayside. We were making progress overall, and I was still having (most of) our weekly GROUPER meetings, so no problem, right?
Well, not quite. New students need orientation and support to start a new program—even if they are simply completing their BS degree and starting an MS/PhD in the same program. The culture of a lab changes significantly when the “veterans” leave and the “newbies” come in. If all the veterans are leaving at once (and living in other cities or even time zones as they finish), who is most responsible for managing the communication and socialization of the important aspects of the organizational culture? The advisor, of course—even if the lab is fortunate enough (as we have been) to have a set of new student “onboarding” documents. Thus, it was easy enough for me to think, “well, this is just a little schedule shift,” when postponing 1:1 meetings, it’s HUGE for someone just starting on a new path in a confusing feudal environment.
So, among the last gasp efforts of the overwhelming Fall semester, we made sure that we put a priority on making sure everyone had a regular 1:1 meeting, and that such meetings were a priority when possible. (Sometimes, from February Frenzy through March Madness and April Anarchy, we might not have 1:1 meetings for everyone at their regularly scheduled time, but we know to discuss that with the travel schedule weeks in advance.) I was even able to welcome a new international visiting student, and within her first week on campus, we had 1:1 meetings for her as well. Everyone remember to breathe…
Within the first three weeks of the new semester starting in January 2020, the difference was obvious to the students, and to me as well. Yes, it helped that I wasn’t teaching in the classroom (“A Professor is ALWAYS teaching!”), but each week, significant progress was being made in the crafting and focus on research projects, social and psychological development, and understanding of what I’m looking for and how to get there. As a result, when I asked for a “Captain Kirk to Scotty” response from the lab, not only could I get one, but the response seamlessly added into the discussions of each individual’s projects as well.
Figure 1. Scotty: “I need at least three days, Captain.” Kirk: “You’ve got an hour.” image from https://movieplus.news/25-false-things-about-star-trek-that-everyone-believed/
Since the lab has been experiencing “distributed operations” for at least four years (remember the students in other time zones part?), we have frequently had at least one member of the lab (including me, when I was working in Washington, DC for a year) “dial in” remotely via Webex, Google Hangouts, Skype, Zoom, …. It’s not weird, it’s just that not everyone makes it to the same room every week. So, if there is an illness, or travel, or simply a schedule conflict, “Can we do the 1:1 remotely next Monday? Sure.” In essence, regular contact, regular discussion, regular updates had all become… regular.
Back in February, one of our research project teams was having its quasi-monthly meeting. It’s hard getting people from four universities and a federal agency together for project updates, but we were able to find a mutual window in the schedule: March 23. We don’t know much else about the news and research environment ahead (our project had been already upended by a Sunday morning news story), but we do know that. As the possible impacts of “shelter in place” and “social distancing” were discussed in early March, GROUPER made a fairly simple decision on March 11, two days before Purdue’s Spring Break: “We’ll just assume all meetings starting March 23, for the first two weeks after Spring Break, will be electronic rather than physical.” At least it seemed simple at the time.
GROUPER studies how people get, share, and use information. We focus on elements of information sharing, knowledge exchange, and task coordination. We’ve talked about differences between physical interactions and online communication, and how we manage and moderate our expectations of those online information flows, for over 25 years. (See here, and here.) But today, there was an additional value to doing things we do regularly, in a way that we could recognize as familiar and repeated. And yes, there was a value to me as well. Guidance and navigation aren’t just for spacecraft, but for explorers of all types; communication is not a luxury, but a human need.