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ASK OCE — June 21, 2007 — Vol. 2, Issue 4


As technology has progressed and system complexity has increased exponentially in recent decades, the need for technical standards relevant to spaceflight developments has also increased. The NASA Technical Standards Program is responsible for making sure that the agency has access to the best available standards for its programs and projects.

NASA has always developed technical standards of its own, but until the late 1990s it never centralized them. “We have a very strong tradition of standards within NASA, but they have almost always been center-based or program-based,” said Dick Weinstein, Program Executive for the NASA Technical Standards Program in the Office of the Chief Engineer. “We did a magnificent job of writing a very complete set of standards for the Apollo program, and then when we began to develop Shuttle, we went to the Apollo standards and realized those were all very out of date. So we did a set of standards for Shuttle, and by the time we started on Space Station we realized the Shuttle standards were old. We kept going through this reincarnation cycle of developing standards for programs.”

Since its inception in 1999, the scope of NASA Technical Standards has expanded beyond engineering to include standards for safety & mission assurance (S&MA) and software implementation standards from the Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO). Each office controls their own standards, but as NASA Technical Standards, they all have the same “look and feel.”

In addition to its own standards, NASA relies heavily on those developed by outside organizations. Like all federal agencies, the agency is obligated to employ non-government standards when possible in accordance with Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Circular A-119. Many of those standards are established and maintained by professional organizations for specific engineering disciplines or sectors, such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the American Society for Mechanical Engineers, and the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).

“One of the things we’ve gained in having a web-based NASA Technical Standards System is that we’ve been able to make standards from many sources available to many more people,” Weinstein said. The website is open to the public for finding standards, but full text documents from private organizations are available (under license) only to NASA. “Before we had this database, there was a lot of duplication in standards access arrangements. With this system, we’re saving NASA money and reaching more people.”

Part of the job of maintaining standards for the agency involves representing NASA within the broader community of organizations that maintain technical standards. The agency participates actively in the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), the national governing body for voluntary standards, and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), its international counterpart.

NASA also makes extensive use of the Department of Defense’s vast set of standards. “We’ve always used a lot of mil (military) standards. It’s a very robust set of standards, and they deal with many of the same issues that we do,” said Weinstein. “For other processes, such as testing of materials, industry standards are pretty suitable, but we sometimes have our special cut on things because of different operating conditions.”

The use of outside standards tailored to fit NASA’s needs is a priority for the Technical Standards Program. “We do want to incorporate our own lessons learned, but that doesn’t mean we have to write our own standards to do it,” Weinstein said.

From Weinstein’s point of view, the standards database serves as more than a source of technical rules; it also offers a way to disseminate best practices and lessons learned across the agency. “We’re actually going through the lessons learned database and linking the lessons learned to appropriate standards. The trick is getting the lessons learned into practice,” he said. “When you have a job to do, you’re going to look up the standards. If the information is either in the standards or linked to the standards, there’s a good chance you’re going to use it if it’s tight there when you’re in the middle of a job or crisis.”

The Technical Standards Program is applying lessons learned of its own from the Shuttle era to devise an approach to standards that will serve the Vision for Space Exploration. “When NASA began recertification of the Shuttle after Columbia, we went down to Johnson Space Center (JSC) and talked to Bill Parsons, then head of the Shuttle program, about helping them to find where industry practice had changed and should be considered to update the Shuttle requirements,” Weinstein said. “We actually couldn’t do much because there was no traceability from the Shuttle documents to the sources they came from. A Shuttle standard might be half mil standard, but you didn’t know which mil standards they used (to write it), how much they took (from the mil standards), and how much was their own.”

In light of the Shuttle recertification experience, the Technical Standards Program decided on a proactive approach with the Constellation program. “We said (to the program), We understand it’s more fun to write your own (standards). But everywhere possible, let’s try to use a non-program standard as a benchmark, and we don’t much care if it’s a mil standard or an AIAA standard or a NASA standard. Then you write your requirements into the program, and you can tailor it any way you want. Your requirements won’t necessarily change unless you have a problem, but these standards will evolve, and if you keep the traceability, then you can monitor these standards as they grow and change. You can decide which changes you’d like to make and which changes aren’t worth the money, but at least then you’ll know what you have done and haven’t done.”

With an eye on the Constellation program’s schedule, the Technical Standards Program moved quickly to issue several new NASA standards in order to get them into the program’s requirements. “They’ll have that benchmark going downstream,” said Weinstein. “Looking to the future, there is growing management interest in using expertise across NASA to build a common technical environment. We’re confident that the NASA Technical Standards Program can contribute to meeting that goal.”

In This Issue

Message from the Chief Engineer

Archimedes Archive: The History of U.S. Engineering Standards

This Week in NASA History: Seasat-A

The NASA Technical Standards Program: An Enterprise Approach

Enhancing Standards at DOD: The Defense Standardization Program

The United States Standards Strategy

Ames Partnership To Develop Machine-to-Machine Intelligence System

A View from the Outside: South Korea Nears Completion of First Space Center

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