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December 22, 2008 Vol. 1, Issue 12


In NASA’s culture it is common to think about science, engineering, and project management as separate disciplines. In reality, close collaboration is one of the keys to successful project outcomes.

Science is at the heart of why we explore space. The first U.S. space mission, Explorer I, enabled Dr. James Van Allen to detect the radiation belts (later named Van Allen belts) surrounding the earth. That same year, the Space Act of 1958 called for NASA to “arrange for participation by the scientific community in planning scientific measurements and observations to be made through use of aeronautical and space vehicles, and conduct or arrange for the conduct of such measurements and observations.” Since then, of course, the ability to conduct scientific research from space has led to critical findings in areas ranging from climate change to the origins of the universe.

The size and scope of NASA science missions can vary considerably. Flagship missions such as the Hubble Space Telescope have life cycle costs in the billions and commensurate public visibility. Many more of our science missions involve less expensive “one-off” spacecraft built to perform in a highly specific environment. These smaller missions are often led by a Principal Investigator (PI), whose experience developing flight hardware or working in a project team environment can vary greatly.

To help ensure that PI-led missions have the support they need, the Academy partnered with the Science Mission Directorate in August to offer its first-ever PI Forum. The primary audience was six PI-led teams whose proposals were selected by NASA in May 2008 for further evaluation as part of the agency’s Small Explorer (SMEX) Program. Several members of each SMEX proposal team attended the program, which featured presentations and stories from some of the most accomplished leaders from our community, including John Mather (Nobel Prize-winning physicist at Goddard Space Flight Center), Scott Hubbard (former Director of Ames Research Center, now at Stanford University), Orlando Figueroa (Director of Applied Engineering and Technology at Goddard Space Flight Center), and Dennis Matson (former Project Scientist for Cassini-Huygens).

One of the recurring themes of the forum was the criticality of good communication. In recounting his experience with the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) mission, John Mather cautioned that a PI can turn into “a single-point failure walking on Earth” if there is inadequate communication with the project team. “There were a few times when I woke up in the middle night with cold sweat running off of my body saying, ‘I screwed up. This is not going to work this way, and I better get to work the next morning and tell people that I screwed up,'” he said. “If you’re pretty good at what you do and people like you, they will not challenge you, and they should. For all who are good at what you do, make sure you’re not the only one who knows what you know and believes what you believe, because you can lead your entire team into a cul de sac or off a cliff, and they won’t necessarily know.”

Communication is essential because science missions, like any spaceflight projects, demand that individuals from a number of disparate disciplines work together toward a common outcome. Cost analysts and data system managers are as essential as flight controllers and scientists to the ultimate success of the mission. What this means for PIs is that they play a critical project leadership role. In addition to possessing highly specialized knowledge about the science mission, they have a story to tell about what they hope to accomplish through their research and how it fits in the larger tapestry of scientific discovery. (I highly recommend John Mather’s book The Very First Light for a great example of this kind of storytelling.) This story is the ultimate reason for the project’s existence and a great source of motivation for the project team. The PI’s ability to convey what’s at stake and give team members a sense that their work will help make a vital contribution to scientific knowledge is an important soft power dimension of project leadership. By attracting team members to adopt the project as their own and by demonstrating genuine appreciation for their expertise and efforts, a Principal Investigator can help build a team that will stop at nothing to succeed.

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