NASA Space Missions: Lessons for Today’s Virtual Team Managers
Virtual team management has come into sharp focus during COVID but managing teams remotely is not new. Sending a rocket into space is arguably one of the most complex endeavors imaginable – yet NASA teams scattered across different locations have been using virtual tools to execute groundbreaking missions for years.
REEA CPO Alan Schunemann, whose former roles included a stint at NASA’s space program, explores the early development of online sharing tools and how their application laid the foundations for virtual world management processes today.
The Promise of the Web – Sharing Information
In 1989 English scientist Tim Berners-Lee proposed a global hypertext system to his superiors at Swiss-based CERN, one of the world’s largest and most respected centers for scientific research. His proposal to manage general information about accelerators and experiments was intended to help scientists share information about complex evolving systems.
Berners-Lee saw the possibility of using hyperlinks to link any unit of information over the internet. Hyperlinks were integral to the creation of the World Wide Web.
These early developments facilitated the exchange of information among teams in different locations, not only scientists at CERN, but ultimately every team in every workplace, eventually leading to a host of everyday online sharing tools. Today, tools such as Confluence, Jira, Zoom, Slack, and others enable us to work together in ways once unimaginable.
NASA Missions and the Early Web
The early web revolutionized the communication between engineers and scientists working on NASA spacecraft missions, enabling them to easily share information across the country.
The program management process changed dramatically as IT specialists convinced NASA program managers to move away from X windows packages and manual documents to web-enabled missions.
As a result, from 1995 onwards NASA missions started using virtual tools such as the web and CGI – common gateway interface – leading to the birth of the first web applications. The WMAP mission launched in 2001 was one of the first web-enabled missions – with scientists from all over the continent working together virtually for the first time.
These early virtual tools addressed some of the most important challenges in NASA project management – and ultimately in the management of all complex projects managed by remote teams:
Centralized Knowledge Base
The first one is the ability for all team members to have access to a centralized knowledge base for documentation.
The web made it easier for all the engineers on the NASA mission to sing from the same song sheet – through the online storage, versioning and sharing of important documentation (including spacecraft plans).
There are engineering leads for every subsystem of the spacecraft, as well as the science team, quality control and mission management and they all need to be in sync at all times.
Equally important is the ability to communicate about the documents or topics in a common space and to have the documents and conversations archived for future reference (with the added ability to search the information). Online sharing tools made this possible.
Saving Conversations and Interactions
Newsgroups and mailing lists for subsystems facilitated centralized conversations that would serve as a changelog/history of decisions taken.
It also meant the conversation history could be searched post-launch, to analyze decision-making and answer questions. This became an invaluable tool after each mission.
Virtual Meeting Rooms
Virtual conferencing as a communication tool – which only truly came into its own as a business tool during the pandemic in 2020 – has been used in NASA missions since the early days of web development.
Video conferencing technology has allowed astronauts, for example, to do telemedicine video conferencing, have family chats, collaborate with scientists in real-time and do projects with school children from space using their laptops or iPads.
Planning and scheduling is a key component in every phase of the operation from crew training to ground operations, activity scheduling, control of life support systems, planning and scheduling of exploration and construction activities.
In the days before virtual scheduling, the mission’s schedulers had to meet with the subsystem lead engineers to update their tasks in the project plan – so the program manager had an accurate schedule for launch.
Automated scheduling and updating and virtual simulations have transformed this process – reducing the need for meetings, improving efficiency, and lowering cost. Scheduling is done virtually with some automated functions. This means the program manager easily stays up to date with any changes.
The Program Manager in the Virtual World
The program manager is the only person on the team with the overall vision of the project – orchestrating the team of engineers, scientists and schedulers in real-time, as well as scanning down the road for future developments.
He or she is also the resource facilitator who meets with the resource analyst to establish what is needed to meet requirements and who has funding discussions with NASA directors.
The virtual tools explored above have facilitated the process, but in themselves won’t guarantee a successful rocket launch. It is only in combination with the right leadership and communication skills, vision and solid experience, that a program manager can guide a virtual team to success.
The program manager’s role is akin to the function of a product manager within the larger scope of all NASA projects. The owner is the NASA director and ultimately, every American citizen.
Virtual World Management Today
The virtual tools used in early NASA missions were the forerunners to web applications such as JIRA and Confluence, widely used among virtual teams around the world.
The project management needs for launching a rocket today have not changed much, but the use of virtual tools combined with progressive leadership have made the process smoother, with far-reaching implications for how we manage virtual teams.
Lessons for Virtual World Management from NASA Missions
A Pool of Global Talent
As a result of virtual tools and remote working, creating a team of top talent from a global pool poses no problem. At NASA, we worked with Universities (UCLA, MIT, Brown) around the country as well as a lab in VA (NRAO).
Similar to NASA mission project managers, successful virtual team managers have the experience and vision to know which tools to use and how to apply them to guide remote teams to successful outcomes.
As with NASA missions, clear communication is the key to successful project management. Combining virtual tools and advanced communication skills to facilitate the exchange of information among virtual teams, is mission-critical.
At REEA, we have been using virtual management tools since the early days and we also have the experience to use them to enable project success.
As a global team of experienced owners and builders, we combine big picture vision and leadership strategies with time-tested tools and the ability to test promising future tools to guide complex IT projects from planning to launch.