NASA “Lessons Learned” System Preserves Engineering Expertise

Posted: March 19, 2003 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Robin Herron

Could the Lessons Learned knowledge-based system he is working on have prevented the Challenger space shuttle disaster? “Probably,” says computer science professor David Rine. However, he’s not sure about the Columbia tragedy yet because there are still too many unknowns.

As news articles speculating about the cause of Columbia’s disintegration have revealed, problems with spacecraft can arise from many factors–damage caused by the tremendous forces during launch, the failure of mechanical parts, and plain old human error. Another element that can contribute to mishaps is a brain drain of experienced engineers, especially from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) shuttle program.

Photo of David Rine

David Rine

Rine explains that from the time NASA began efforts to explore space in the 1950s, the agency had built up valuable organizational expertise in its science and engineering community. “They had learned by making mistakes and learning lessons, but, as we speak, much of the expertise in NASA has been lost. Scientists and engineers are retiring, and they’re dying off, so there are gaps in the knowledge base of the organization.”

The NASA-funded Lessons Learned research and development project aims to preserve that expertise and make “lost” knowledge available to the next generation of engineers. “A project manager who’s working on the next mission, he’s wondering, well, have I gone through my checklist of all the things I’m supposed to remember in designing this launch system? If he doesn’t have these older, wiser experts to talk through these things with he might miss some things. He might forget to check very, very subtle things,” Rine says.

The end result of the project, which has been ongoing for two years, will be an ultra-sophisticated search engine that can scour NASA databases for important engineering lessons learned.

“The key is to be able to go well beyond the current web browsing and library science technologies and develop ways of retrieving information from the Lessons Learned information system that is literally everything an engineer needs to know about a particular design decision, but no more–no more and no less,” Rine says.

He describes how the search engine would work: “A project manager will try to phrase what is needed in an engineering decision in his own engineering language. That engineering language will be translated into an internal complex inquiry that the browser will then use to go into the Lessons Learned information system and bring back the right pieces of information.

“We want to make these browsers much more human-usable than they have been before. We also want them to be very fast and very accurate and give the design engineer exactly what he or she needs.”

In the case of the Challenger accident, Rine says some people knew there were potential problems with the failed O-rings, but the information didn’t get to the right higher-level, decision-making people when it was needed. And, he adds, on an early exploratory Mars mission, a spacecraft went off course because of incorrect sensor readings, another problem that might have been avoided with a Lessons Learned system. However, Rine acknowledges that it will be only one defense against errors.

“Because of the size and complexity of the one-of-a-kind systems that NASA puts together, I can’t imagine how one wouldn’t make some wrong decisions, and you only hope that those are benign–oftentimes they are benign, and sometimes they’re not, and sadly, people get killed,” Rine says. Those are the risks inherent in scientific exploration, he adds.

Rine’s association with the space agency goes back to when he and his Ph.D. students began using NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s databases as a resource for his software engineering students’ research. He joined the Lessons Learned project at the urging of his friend Frank Hoban, who worked for NASA for more than 30 years before becoming director of the School of Public Policy’s Continuing Career Program. Hoban, who died last year, had been with NASA during the space program’s early days and was deeply committed to preserving space systems knowledge and passing it on to the next generation, a concept that Rine says has now become part of NASA’s corporate culture.

Rine is also working on a metrics-based engineering processes improvements initiative for NASA. Like other organizations that receive certifications from accrediting or standards agencies, NASA hopes to have a standards system by which it can measure the improvements made in its engineering processes. “It will allow us to prove that engineering processes are improving in a measurable way,” he says.

Rine plans to take study leave next year to work on the two NASA projects.

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