Pomello goes to NASA: Why Culture Matters in Space

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The Pomello team recently had the opportunity to visit NASA Ames Research Center. I wanted to take a break from our regularly scheduled programming to talk about what we saw when we were there. I am embarrassed to admit that I thought NASA Ames was shut down years ago, and it does feel like the days of space exploration are a distant memory that our parents can relate to better than us. You can wander the campus buildings where the hallways are often quiet, and peer into the windows of monolithic buildings where wind tunnels tested the aerodynamics of shuttles.

IMG_3858Signs of Life at NASA

What I found out after a day of touring around is that the budget may be smaller than it once was, and the program may make less marketing noise, but there are still big things going on at NASA. It remains the kind of place that makes you think back to being a kid when you might have dreamt of being an astronaut. For one thing, you can literally touch a space shuttle.

While the budget at NASA has certainly shrunk since the days of the Apollo missions, the 2016 budget is the biggest in a decade. An organization that has been largely forgotten by the public NASA is now in a position to grow and take on new initiatives. In 2016, there is the geological mission Insight which will land on Mars (more on that later), a robotic orbiter called Juno will reach Jupiter, and Osiris-Rex will begin its journey to the asteroid Bennu.

As I read about NASA’s agenda for the near future I was struck by two things. 1) NASA is insanely good at naming things. Really, really good. 2) NASA thinks in terms of years and decades. They might launch a mission this year that takes more than 10 to fulfill. It gets you thinking about the way we in technology are running around making tactical decisions because of the funding environment this year. In contrast, NASA has weathered a crappy funding environment for decades and is still building incredible technology and sending it into space.

Who is Building These Robots Anyway

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As we wandered the hallways of a building during a bit of downtime, we decided to try to find someone to talk to us. We knocked on the door of a random office. Offices at NASA have names that you can only dream of having on your door one day, names like Mission Control Technologies Lab.

We stumbled on an engineer who was a bit perturbed at first by a possibly lost group of tech entrepreneurs accosting him for a tour. But with some wit and charm, we got him to tell us about what he’s working on. It turns out, he builds the software that is embedded on the Mars Rover.

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He explained as he showed us a Lunar Rover some of the challenges that arise in building these types of vehicles and equipping them with software that enables them to do their jobs. For example, this Lunar Rover is traveling to wait for it… the dark side of the moon. They haven’t operated a rover in such low light before and so they are experimenting with equipping it with lights so that the software can process the terrain and avoid driving off a cliff.

The rover pictured here is equipped with bike lights as an experimental model. Hacking is apparently something that even NASA does with some frequency and creativity. And in case you have sharp eyes and are wondering, that is an XBox controller resting on top of the engine compartment. It turns out that even a government run bureaucracy can be a center for innovation. In fact, if you took this picture out of context you might have pegged this as a the office of another robotics start-up in its early stages.

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NASA faces numerous challenges in this next year and beyond. They are perennially underfunded for the scope of the projects they are asked to undertake. Their various departments must fight internally for funding creating political tensions, and hampering swift decision-making. Most importantly they must compete with some of the most exciting companies in the world for talent.

But here is the one thing they have going for them with regard to recruiting. People who work there get to build a robot, or spaceship, or AI that goes to another planet, or an asteroid or a moon orbiting a planet on the outer reaches of the solar system. How many perks would you forsake for the chance to do something with that kind of impact? What pay cut would you accommodate to say you were on the frontier of space exploration?

Culture Matters

You may have thought you escaped reading an article in which I discuss organizational culture, but you were wrong. The thing that is striking about NASA’s recruiting challenge is that they may only be able to recruit a small number of people with such fierce competition out there. But the power of their mission and the dedication that it requires is so strong, that they can be sure that those who do come to work for them are there because they value the ideals that NASA stands for. If that’s not a strong mechanism for organizational culture, I don’t know what is.

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