As has been said, it may take a trip to distant lands to understand one’s life at home. Whether home is a specific building, a postal code, or even a set of celestial coordinates, the lesson is that things that may be perceived in one way when you’re up close take on a different perspective when you get more… perspective. In an earlier entry, “Origin Story,” I mentioned the crew of Apollo 8 and their experience of the Earth from lunar orbit that was captured in the famous and iconic “Earthrise” photo. (It should not be underestimated how much that photo, and other NASA “whole disk” images of Earth contributed to the imagery and development of the Earth Day movement.) As a geek since childhood, I am a big fan of NASA—it is, of course, why I have felt so proud and honored to work in this area and represent STEM engagement for Indiana as Director of the NASA Indiana Space Grant Consortium. However, I’m used to NASA stuff and especially the “Meatball” logo, as a pretty distinctive alert:
WARNING: the wearer of this logo may be thinking mathematical thoughts and seeing pretty engineering and science formulae at any given moment.
Geek alert? OK. Nerd pride? I’m certainly good with that. But cutting edge alternative brand representation? I wasn’t ready for that, until I saw this display case in a store in our local mall. (Just for reference, this is not an anchor department store, or a clothing store with full-page ads in leading lifestyle magazines. Think more like adolescent and young adult subculture references.) And notice, this display case is at the front of the store: it’s what they hope will draw people into the place to pick up other items referencing 1970s music groups or 1990s movies or… in other words, a different kind of marketing than I’m used to.
Figure 1. NASA as mall candy?
However, I did file this away for future thought as we are ramping up the Purdue 150th and Apollo 11 50th Anniversary celebrations on campus. Hmmm… NASA might be trending? Or is that just where I happen to be right now?
How does one check on that? My general answer has always been, “Scan and Connect”. Get out of one’s local spot (either geographical or intellectual or social), and look around at what else is out there. Yep. we’re working on planning for the Apollo 11th activities. Let’s get a team together, and tap into energy around the campus: an air show, special archives exhibits, pictures of astronauts and the Purdue Big Bass Drum. (No, that’s not a joke: being able to bang the drum is a VERY BIG DEAL, and when you’re both the first to walk on the moon and a Purdue band alumnus, you get to do it, with a big smile.)
Figure 2. Neil bangs the drum, Purdue Astronaut Reunion, 1999.
Yes, that would engage the campus. Let’s go bigger. Symphony Orchestra concerts? Sure. Exhibits at science and children’s museums across the State? Of course. Activities to engage K-12 students to understand the past and (more importantly) celebrate and engage in the future of space exploration? Every chance we get. All right, we’re going to make sure this “NASA in Indiana” effort is as broad and capable as we’re able to make it.
And then, earlier this month, I went to the airport for a trip. It was a research trip, but not for Space Grant or one of my NASA projects. The destination was someplace I like, but not a regular NASA spot: not Houston, or Florida, or California. It was Sweden. I’m not surprised to see a few NASA shirts on people in the Indianapolis airport. (Remember, we have Purdue and Indiana University and Ball State and Valpo and Southern Indiana students working on NASA projects all the time.) I get on the plane. It’s a comfortable and relaxing flight to Paris, and plenty of time for coffee and croissant during my layover. And there is another NASA shirt. Was this someone on my flight? I don’t think so. That’s curious. But I’m not that outgoing, so I don’t walk up to them to ask. (That was a mistake, but hey, I was tired.)
Another plane, and then a train, and arrival in the tech center of southern Sweden. I’ve got a day of readjustment and project planning and catching sunlight to forestall the effects of jet lag; nothing better than wandering around the city and exploring. As I walk in the historic heat (only about 88F, but this is Sweden), I see a variety of scaffolds and music loudspeakers and food booths being set up for their major multi-day, city-wide street festival. Oh, I think to myself. I must be some kind of work geek: I was so busy thinking about the project, I wasn’t really aware. But that’s okay.
The six-hour work meeting goes really well, and both sides seem to be looking forward to the project development effort. Time to find some dinner as a treat. I’m again wandering around the city, with an eclectic and growing mix of faces and languages and interests. And then it happens again. Another NASA shirt? And there’s the logo on a hat! In one case, I pass close enough to overhear the conversation the person is having. It does me no good, and I won’t learn about their choice of that article of clothing—they and their companions are not speaking English, or the other languages I ever learned. Saturday morning, and my last day in town begins with rain. That’s okay, as I have more Apollo 11 planning to think about. But remember, Barrett, go out to scan and connect. With more time in the festival, I get a better sense of my way around, and one more time, a shirt catches my attention. It’s the Meatball. Too far away for me to catch up, sadly. Now I do want to know, though. Who are these folks, and why do they connect to the U.S. space agency? Hope? Promise? Cool? Inspiration? Next time, I will ask. It teaches me so much to find the answers, no matter where I might be.
Figure 3. Hej! Hello! Do you speak NASA?
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.