Monday, September 17, 2018

Countdown Sequence Start

(This post is also parallel posted to the grouperlab blog at )

I started seriously thinking about the countdown when we hit 600.  (I even started a blog entry about it, but I didn’t manage to finish ituntil we were crossing 500.)  At 400, it became obvious that regular meetings would be needed and important.  At 350, I created a timer.  Now, as we approach 300, I can start to hear the ticking in my head. 

July 20, 2019.

The 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, and especially the moon landing, is a primary emphasis of my administrative and engagement work for this year.  It touches many of my connections on the Purdue campus, as well as multiple existing partnerships and new conversations around the State of Indiana.  In one sense, I am reminded of my preparations for race day when I was involved in competitive rowing as a coxswain, dozens of years (and pounds) ago.  Race preparation obviously doesn’t start when you get in the boat a half hour before you hit the starting line.  Often, the planning process works backwards: if we want to be ready to row that race on that day, what do we have to do today?  What skills and drills do we emphasize?  What specific contingencies do we practice?  What can I learn about my boat (not just the physical craft, but the four or eight people who rely on me to steer straight, make the right decision, and earn their trust) right now, that will make the difference days or weeks hence?

I still find myself adopting that preparation model for events: lectures for class, public interview and presentation opportunities, project management for the lab or a research team or Space Grant activities.  The process gets more intricate and the need to connect gets stronger as the scale gets larger.  How do I channel that passion well?  What is the elegant set of plans and preparations that allows me to use today to get us closer to excellent execution on that day that seems both far off and approaching way too fast.  The more we discuss among our Mission Operations “consoles,” the more I recall how deeply I feel the importance and impact of December 1968 – July 1969, the first time we left Earth.  I am also more acutely aware that not everyone feels this, and the purpose of this celebration is not just to get everyone to connect to Apollo 8 or Apollo 11 the way I do (“my favorite thing”).  We must explore and connect how many different ways people to connect to the variety of inspirations and experiences of exploration – aviation, space, scientific discovery, engineering innovation, inspiration and engagement and education of various types for each unique individual and her or his special pattern of resonance. 

This charge, more than any other, underscores the need I feel for a palette of events, rather than simply focusing on a single signature activity.  Neil flew a variety of aircraft from his childhood through his return from the Moon; as a student, he played in the band and built and flew model airplanes.  By the time Purdue was celebrating its centennial in 1969, Indiana had already played an outsized and varied role in aerospace history (which many people still do not fully appreciate).  Balloons were employed to deliver airmail before the Civil War.  The Wright family lived here, in Hagerstown; Wilbur was born there.  Aircraft engines for World War I and II were built here, and critical training for aviators (including the famed Tuskegee Airmen) was led by those born, or living, or trained in Indiana.  Amelia Earhart worked here, inspiring women to fly and get their technical training.  All of that was in place before a youth from Wapakoneta, OH decided to enroll at Purdue, overlapping with a slightly older student from Mitchell, IN, who both had dreams to fly.  Every one of these stories is about dedication and planning and preparation.

Why do I take this so seriously, and worry about the countdown so much?  Unexpectedly, on the way back from the National Space Grant Directors meeting (this year, during a beautiful late summer oasis in Vermont), I got an answer – serendipitously, while writing this entry.  New colleagues from another Space Grant consortium saw my pins and stickers, and asked about their effectiveness in stimulating interest and engagement and enthusiasm for Space Grant programs.  Conversation drifted to strategies for engagement with FIRST Robotics… after a few minutes, another passenger comes over.  She’s a scientist, and passionate about FIRST and STEM education, and we end up having a good conversation about our Space Grant mission.  Since I still consider myself something of an introvert, this type of conversation is what preparation helps me do well.

But, over the next 306 days, there will be more people, and more opportunities, and more connections, all to get from imagining to planning to excellent execution.  Each day has new opportunities for meeting challenges and enabling achievements, as well as the need to maintain wariness against new surprises.  The count goes on.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

“Mac’s Old Team” and New Awards: Details Matter

How do I know it’s summer in Indiana?  Usually, it’s when I’m a) checking the corn fields against the old “knee high by the Fourth of July” aphorism; b) checking the forecast for thunderstorms and/or temperatures over 90 degrees; c) driving to Jasper for the Grissom Scholarship Golf Tournament and Awards Banquet.  This year was no exception on any of these, although there was an important difference: on the day before the tournament, I was already in southern Indiana, attending a weeklong vacation for a subset of car geeks: the 60th Porsche Parade in French Lick and West Baden Springs

Barrett’s 1989 944S2 at West Baden Springs for Porsche Parade 2015

Great!  I already have my clubs! I’m only 25 miles away!  I’m driving my classic German-engineered toy!

What am I going to talk about?

Fortunately, I’m among friends at the Sultan’s Run golf course: people who laugh at my jokes, people who have seen my golf game improve (ahem!), and people who are eager and excited to hear about new projects and new updates in my work with NASA.  I’m also excited to reconnect with “new old friends,” some retired engineers from McDonnell Corporation who helped to design and build Project Mercury.  I admire these engineers (and their wives) for their commitment, honesty, passion, and their unique legacy.  I look at them, smile as they greet me and shake my hand, and an idea comes to mind. 

Tonight’s talk isn’t about big rockets, or shiny mission control centers, or stunning new pictures of far-away galaxies.  I love all of those things, but in the elements of my current research projects in healthcare information coordination, and weather information technology for general aviation, and teams conducting planetary analog research, there is a theme that could be easily missed.  Details matter. 

At the Porsche Parade, one of the Porsche engineers talked about the weeks and months of effort associated with the color of a special edition of their signature car.  How do we match the color to the iconic reference of Porsche in the USA?  What color is it?  How do we manage the logistics with our suppliers?  What do we call it?  All this for a shade of blue?  (Actually, it’s called Club Blau, danke.)  And we’re only making 60 cars?  (60th Porsche Parade, 60th year of the car club … you get it?)  Well, this is for a company that is taking pride in the cars that have driven from all over the US (including Alaska), and have a rich racing history, and celebrations of vehicles with over 500,000 miles on the odometer, or the same owner after 50 or 60 years.  The process of selecting Club Blau is part of an important signal: Details Matter when you want excellent, iconic, legendary engineering.

There are a few pharmacists in the audience, so I’m pleased to talk about our work with medication delivery safety.  If you’re in the world of getting the right dose of the right drug to the right patient at the right time (that’s four of the six “rights”), 99% isn’t even close to good enough.  In 2014, there were 4.2 Billion prescriptions filled in the US—90.15 million in Indiana alone.  If Indiana pharmacists were only 99% correct, there would still be over 901,000 people getting something wrong in their prescriptions.  To get this down to under 10 people, we’d need “seven nines” accuracy: systems of people, and technology, and information making an error less than one in ten million.  You don’t get there with casual integration or poor thinking or blame after the fact.  You get there with a relentless focus on details and systems integration and always thinking, “How can we make this better?” 

Astronaut Scott Kelly is on board the International Space Station for a year.  That’s a long time.  And yet, that’s not even a third of a planned mission to Mars.  How do we get astronauts to work together with robots, and science investigators, and mission control engineers, to do excellent science and keep everyone alive and not waste valuable time, expertise, or access to unique veins of knowledge on another planet, moon or asteroid?  My project work in Idaho, and now in Hawaii, looks at how to improve the quality and effectiveness of communication to ensure the right details get to where they need to be, and that knowledge and information are exchanged well, even with 20 minute communication delays.

I admit, all of that sounds a long way off for a 17 year old student who just graduated from high school.  That’s for old folks, not for me, right?   To paraphrase an often-seen reference, Objects in the future are closer than they appear.   Yes, the “Old Mac Team” engineers are senior and retired now, but how old were they when they were moving to Cape Canaveral, or flying to meet with a contractor with a stuck gyro on their lap?  They were in their mid- to late-20s, at most 10 years older than this year’s Grissom Scholarship winners.  Perhaps an even closer example was dedicated this past April, and exists right now on the Purdue campus.  With some prodding from me, the smartphones came out, and people began to view images of the VOSS model of the solar system near the corner of Martin Jischke Dr. and Nimitz Dr. on the West Lafayette campus. 

VOSS EPICS students prepare for dedication and open house, April 18, 2015

That’s an impressive and iconic landscape feature.  I fully expect that, in just a few years, it will be common to hear people say, “Let’s meet at the Sun.”  But what is most impressive and memorable about this effort is that it started as a student project, led by a young woman who took on a major leadership role in the VOSS project as a sophomore for an EPICS team in 2010.   Getting VOSS from an idea to a landscape icon and sculpture on campus is not a single task; it’s a long and complex series of lots of little tasks.  It’s not just which artist to pick for the design, or how big to make the sun.  It also involves how big the bolts need to be, and what pieces need to be in the planet plaza to represent a star chart for Janice Voss’ birth, or having the sculptures be deemed suitable for a campus safety audit.  

Barrett with VOSS artist, Jeff Laramore

In a tribute to James McDonnell, his son John noted, “he did everything in life with meticulous attention to detail, to the point that it could be excruciatingly, maddeningly exasperating to those around him; but he also inspired those same people with a sense of important mission and high purpose.”  In order to do wonderful, amazing, transforming, legendary things…

Details do matter.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Ring out the Old

As we get to the end of 2014, I have been able to take some time to marvel at all that has occurred—in my research lab, in Space Grant, in my personal life… but I won’t be going into all of those details here.  It has been interesting to note that, although I have been travelling nearly as much as ever, this year’s flight miles have been lower.  One reason is that several of my trips—including my Human Factors and Ergonomics Society meetings, and a trip to Iowa for a Space Grant outreach talk—have been driving rather than flying trips.  But as the Fall semester winds to a close, and the Indiana temperature begins to dip below zero (Celsius, if not Fahrenheit), travel takes on a different level of need for preparation and contingency.  So, what’s the solution?  Fly to California, where it’s nice all the time!

Well, it’s not quite that simple, or that self-indulgent.  For one of my projects, a team of researchers are investigating the role of weather information presentation on how general aviation pilots understand and respond to (and, we hope, avoid) potentially dangerous weather.  (Apparently, Harry Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life could fly through a snowstorm to get back home for his brother on New Year’s Eve, but most recreational pilots shouldn’t.) Many pilots are only cleared to fly in good weather (what’s called Visual Flight Rules, or VFR).  Despite (or in some reports, exactly because of) the prevalence and growth of smartphones and tablets that can display what might be assumed to be current weather, pilots have been known to fly into degrading weather (knowing as Instrument Meteorological Conditions, or IMC).  Anyone who’s flown in a commercial jet through storm turbulence knows that IMC conditions are not a walk in the park.  If you’re not trained for them, the combination of limited experience, transition from VFR to IMC, and poor information about the state of the world is a potentially fatal combination. 

Our project (funded by the FAA) is intended to understand how delays in updating and presenting weather information (including what might be shown on your tablet device) can further intensify the risks associated with VFR into IMC transitions.  I have been asked to take on a growing leadership role with our sponsors from the FAA in this project, starting in January.  Thus, there were some trips to take in December to make sure things were going to be on track: first to the William J Hughes Tech Center in Atlantic City, and then to the NASA Ames Research Center in Sunnyvale.  In between final project submissions and grading, those trips were my final flight experiences of the year. 

I admit that the busy time of December meant that I was only paying scant attention to the weather report.  I knew it would be in the 50s and 60s while I was in Northern California, but with chances for rain.  Pack a rain jacket and umbrella; leave the parkas behind; no big deal.  Except that the rain was a big deal.  Historic rains drenched California on Thursday, Dec 11.  By the time I landed in Los Angeles on Saturday morning, the aqueducts were actively flowing, and there were standing puddles between the runways at LAX.  I noted that with some bemusement.  By the time I got to San Jose, it became even more obvious that a whole lot of rain had fallen (some areas in the Bay Area got 6-10 inches of rain), with more on the way.  The big question was, after three years of devastating drought, what to do with all of this water and reservoirs that had filled almost literally overnight.  By Monday, my visit to NASA Ames was met by some surprising residents that I had not seen there before:  mushrooms. 

Monday Morning Mushrooms, NASA Ames Research Center

Well, that’s obviously not why I went to NASA Ames.  In fact, I had lots of reasons to visit.  For most of us in Space Grant, it’s getting to internship season.  Where do students want to go for their opportunities to get a foot in the door with NASA?  Which Centers have jobs, and how can we match the best students to the best jobs… early enough in the spring so that the students have the chance to take the job?  So, my visit started with the Office of Education folks, so that I could learn more about what they were looking for, and they could understand how to better coordinate with at least one Space Grant Consortium.  This seems like an excellent opportunity for collaboration and discussion, especially since I had the chance to be there anyway.  Really, I do encourage any faculty member at a Space Grant campus, and especially Space Grant Directors, to pay a visit to the Office of Education the next time you’re at a NASA Center.  The mutual learning can be wonderful, and is a valuable addition to the job and the trip.

Front Door, NASA Ames Office of Education (note reflection in the glass)

After visiting the Education folks, it was off to the human factors researchers.  There is a group at NASA Ames that has been doing work on aviation human factors and information displays for a number of years, and in fact had created some of the software that might be useful for our FAA project.  I like going back to Ames—the researchers in the Human Performance Research Laboratory represent every major phase of my NASA research career since my first years of graduate school, and it feels like I saw nearly all of them as they were going into their office or walking down the hall or moving between buildings.  Now, like a proud father, I can go and also talk to the people who worked with one of my current graduate students, Lara Cheng.  So, it’s not really a surprise that I was looking forward to visiting the human factors researchers in N-262 (it’s not just MIT that refers to all of its buildings using numbers).

NASA Ames Human Performance Research Laboratory, N-262

What several of my colleagues took great pride in calling out to me was that it was Ames’ 75th Anniversary!  Hold on, you say.  NASA only dates to 1958.  Yes, it’s true that NASA has been “America’s Space Agency” for about 55 years, but for 20 years before that, Ames research center was a site for major aviation research study, including one of the largest wind tunnels (capable of testing full-scale models, or even actual aircraft), operating as part of the National Advisory Council on Aeronautics (NACA).  Yes, 40 x 80 feet is really big. 

NACA 40 x 80 foot Wind Tunnel entrance.

Often at the end of the year, we try to make promises to get rid of old habits, and discard old features and functions.  As a fan of the history of technology, I’m not completely thrilled by taking that idea too far.  Yes, it can be a time for renewal, but I found myself appreciating the reminders of where we’ve come from.  I found it somehow ironic, with the recent announcements of Google becoming a major tenant (some would say landlord) for the Ames facility, when I found this reminder of what literature search and reference support used to be: the NACA Technical Service building.

NACA Technical Service Building entrance

As I was departing Ames on Monday, there was a break in the weather that allowed a view of the nearby mountains through the nicely cleaned air.  The NACA history was similarly clear and visible, with the wings logo providing a beautiful foreground.  (The story is apparently that one of the old NACA buildings needed to be torn down, but they salvaged the logo.  Now all that stands in the former site is the cement logo, and a small park.)

NACA logo, with Ames buildings and mountains in the background

So, as you ring out the old, don’t lose too much.  When you welcome the new, don’t assume that every new item will necessarily make your life better, safer, happier.  (Remember, that was why I was visiting on behalf of the FAA project.)  Be careful out there, and a Happy New Year to all.