For Future Reference

Space center beefs up knowledge database as experienced staffers ready to retire.

In 2010, NASA will make a dramatic transition. That year, the agency will stop running the space shuttle and ramp up its efforts to send humans back to the moon and a manned mission to Mars. And it will complete that shift in mission at a time when NASA-along with the rest of the federal government-will likely be in the midst of a retirement wave that could sweep away huge reserves of technical knowledge and experience that cannot immediately be replaced by new hires or contractors.

But in Houston, NASA's Johnson Space Center is safeguarding Space-Age knowledge through a partnership with the University of Houston-Clear Lake to push a new generation of NASA employees ahead of the learning curve.

"The goal of the chief knowledge officer is to help put together not only the last 50 years of human spaceflight knowledge in a way that we can search, receive, find and share it, but to put together a forward plan to deal with the collaboration aspect . . . and the ways that you capture, share and distribute knowledge," says Jean E. Engle, the space center's chief knowledge officer.

One of the most significant hurdles is figuring out what information is out there. Divisions within NASA centers have their own data and their own methods of storing and sorting information. "Everyone tends to have their own silos, their own architecture. . . . Each center has built its own firewalls, its own data systems," Engle says. "All the centers are working together to take [data accessibility] a step further, where we don't have quite as many barriers to sharing because of the way the IT infrastructure is set up."

The goal, Engle says, is to put together "an over-arching architecture so you can have a common taxonomy, a common metadata, so when people want to tap into lessons learned or best practices, they can go to one point."

Engle has a partner in her efforts. Johnson Space Center has an extensive history collection, which has been housed at the University of Houston-Clear Lake under a memorandum of understanding with NASA since 2001. Staff at the space center and the university meet regularly to keep one another apprised of their collections and to coordinate their efforts.

University archivist Shelly H. Kelly oversees the collection, which tripled in size as former NASA employees donated papers and notes they used in their work. "People say, 'I was there from the beginning, I have these boxes, my wife is telling me to clean out this room,' " she says. "One I just picked up, [the former employee] worked in the high-gain antenna office. The one I'm currently processing, he worked on the space crane, the cherry picker."

The existence of that kind of information in a single place has been a tremendous resource for researchers and contractors, Kelly says, especially for archives users who are trying to modify or develop variations on existing technology. "I have a Ph.D. candidate who is doing spacesuit research, and I have a guy from NASA trying to figure out the volume that the spacesuit takes up, and somewhere between the three of us, we found out the answer," she says. "I've noticed that space researchers are a pretty tight-knit group. They're very sharing . . . and they want to make sure they don't have to reinvent the wheel."

The collection also encourages collaboration among researchers from various backgrounds. Because it is housed at the university rather than at NASA, foreign researchers and contractors have access as well. Kelly regularly works with researchers from Australia, Germany and Austria, and requests for archival material spike during years NASA is bidding out technical contracts.

The archives were not always so useful. They originated when NASA hired a group of historians to assemble a timeline of an Apollo-era project based on documents produced by the scientists and engineers involved. The historians preserved a significant amount of material, but they organized it chronologically, splitting up the work done by individual scientists or that addressed specific problems, and making it extremely difficult for researchers to sift through the archives.

Johnson Space Center indexed the documents and created a database that would allow researchers to examine them by subject. That database went live in 2002, and Kelly gives it high marks. "If somebody comes in and says we're studying lunar landings on the moon, I need all the minutes for site committee meetings," she says. "I can put in lunar landing selection, and it'll spit out everything that has the keywords."

The space center also is rapid- scanning documents in the university's collection and storing them on an external hard drive so they can be quickly e-mailed to researchers. "We feel it is important to build those archives and build that knowledge base not just with papers and boxes and audio recordings, but the databases that NASA has built," says Rebecca A. Wright, the space center's history coordinator.

The project uses the knowledge of human resources specialists who suggest possible interview subjects to help Engle identify sources of information that might otherwise be lost when NASA employees retire.

"It's time for us to sit down and identify those key players across all areas who have significant tacit knowledge to share," she says. "I'm not going to tell you that I think we've gotten there in a year. . . . But I do think our center director has made [knowledge management] a priority here. It's not really something new. It's just trying, when you have four generations in a work environment, to change some of the ways you're learning or sharing information."

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