Pass It On: Knowledge Preservation in Uncertain Times

This week, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center—in Huntsville, Alabama—announced new plans to build a National Institute for Rocket Propulsion Systems (NIRPS). One of the core goals of the institute will be to preserve today’s technical expertise for future generations.

July marked the final flight of space shuttle Atlantis, and with government funding cuts and an uncertain future for the manned space program, there are worries that the American rocket propulsion industry will lose footing in the global space race.

The next generation of NASA engineers will look very different. It will be focused on Low Earth Orbit projects—developing aviation technology that will make flying safer, more efficient, and greener. No rocket engines in sight.

Meanwhile, engineers who worked on Atlantis and the like will retire from the workforce and with them they’ll take their smarts, essentially leaving a huge knowledge gap. If and when America chooses to pick up its manned space program it’s going to be at a serious disadvantage unless current knowledge can be recorded, transferred, and built upon.

Success in engineering and technology is predicated on people collaborating and passing on valuable experiences. And this is something that Marshall Center director Robert Lightfoot has top of mind. Lightfoot wants “the institute to be a “strategic asset” bringing together knowledge from industry, Department of Defense and NASA in order to continue to build upon rocket propulsion technology,” he told The Huntsville Times in an interview Thursday.

The concept of knowledge capture and preservation is not new to NASA. Back in the late 1990s, a Design Knowledge Capture initiative enabled the Rocketdyne International Space Station engineering team to share critical design information with the Johnson Space Center. NASA’s aim was to harvest the experiences of the original ISS engineers so it could maintain strong design knowledge over a projected thirty years of on-orbit operation.

Engineers were asked a set of questions about a part, design or system and their responses were captured on video or audio and also written down. In this way, NASA gained critical insight into performance value, margin-of-safety calculation, and the how and why of test failures. Nearly three hundred video stories are archived in the ISS knowledge management website at Johnson Space Center.

What NASA learned from the original engineering team was invaluable. For instance, an EVA airlock systems engineer recorded eight hours of his airlock systems design principles and then performed a video tour of his airlock in final assembly. The rich contextual background proved vital and in the nick of time as the engineer retired from his job three months later and moved to Alaska.

You can find out more about the National Institute for Rocket Propulsion Systems and plans for knowledge preservation in October at the American Astronautical Society’s annual von Braun Symposium in Huntsville.

Photo Credit: Idea Bulb by Ramunas Geciauskas on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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