Connections: learning and remote frontiers
There are all sorts of progressions gracing the FM industry and, in this new instalment in GRAHAM CONSTABLE’s thought-provoking series, Marcus focuses on the innovations at the International Space Station (ISS).
Marcus sat in Scoma’s Restaurant with his mentor and friend, Raoul. Nearby, Fisherman’s Wharf hummed with activity and the lights around the San Francisco Bay glittered as Raoul listened to Marcus talk about his trip to Houston. They hadn’t spoken in a couple of months.
“A good idea of yours Raoul, for me to stop over. Houston to Sydney is a long flight! The food here is great, as usual.”
“That place in Sydney was good too.” “Yeah, but we don’t have a Bay like this.” Raoul agreed. “It’s cool.”
“The Bay’s beautiful, and the Space Centre is cool, Raoul – the real deal.”
“Oh yes, your Houston trip,” Raoul remembered.
“You should see the Neutral Buoyancy Lab – I watched astronauts training underwater. Riveting.”
“That was called the Weightless Training Facility – or something – before.”
“The Buoyancy Lab is different to the original. I remember the original structure, too. You’ve been to the Centre?”
“Sure, it’s quite an operation.”
“Isn’t it! You should see the equipment they have inside that tank. It’s so big!”
“Sounds like you had a memorable visit Marcus.”
“And I haven’t even told you about the simulators.”
Raoul grinned at his friend’s enthusiasm. “So, what did you learn? When we spoke last I suggested you focus on collaboration, innovation and purpose behind the ISS. Were you successful?”
“I have filled my voice recorder and have enough hard copy to write a book!”
“Excellent. Give me a quick summary of what makes up the ISS; it must be quite a structure now.”
Marcus laid out some schematics of the vehicle. “Overall size is 110 metres by 59 metres – that’s one of your football fields. It has a mass of 410,000 kilograms (or 68 African bull elephants), it orbits 400 kilometres – or 240 miles – in low earth orbit every 90 minutes and it can house a crew of six at any one time. In the Orbiter days, these numbers were regularly augmented by the shuttle crew. The vehicle is an intricate network of habitats and laboratory modules, trusses, truss segments, airlocks, numerous electrical, control and environmental systems, eight miles of electrical cabling, an acre’s worth of solar arrays – generating 110 kilowatts of power per orbit – more computers than in an average corporate HQ, payload and equipment racks… I could go on. Nothing like this has ever been built before, ever, by humankind.”
Marcus mused, “I remember sitting out late one night in the Aussie bush with my late father-in-law, Stu, on his front deck. The whole sky was the Milky Way. There was complete silence but for the faint sound of the distant Murray River, when Stu noticed a solid unblinking bright light moving across the sky. He said ‘I can’t hear anything. What kind of aeroplane is that?’” Marcus chuckled. “I told him, ‘Stu, that’s no aeroplane. That’s the Space Station!’ It blew his mind. ‘Wow,’ he said. ‘Right over my backyard!’”
Raoul grinned. “That’s quite a story.”
“That it is, and here I am, exploring how it works.”
“So how does it work, Marcus?”
“You’ll have to read my book!” Marcus grinned. “Joking aside, I must sift through my material before I can answer that one properly. It’s an operation that has relevance for the future of my industry.”
Marcus continued, “For the moment, I can tell you two revealing things. First, the huge collaborative effort involved in assembling, flying and keeping the vehicle operational. Second, the learning approach NASA takes when preparing for and dealing with in-flight challenges. And third, the collective and unrelenting focus on the purpose of the ISS.”
“That’s three things!” Raoul teased.
Marcus smiled. “I guess that’s why they’re up there and I’m down here!”
“Oh, nonsense. You used to fly military jets.”
“Training ones, Raoul. I was never operational.”
“Not many get to do even that.”
Marcus became pensive. “It was an all too brief period of unbridled joy, mental and physical focus. Nothing has come close since!”
Raoul pressed Marcus. “Enough reminiscing. Tell me more about your three points. I’m interested in what you’re learning.”
Marcus cleared his materials. “Consider collaboration. The ISS is the world’s largest international cooperative science and technology program, involving more than 100,000 people in space agencies around the world and at well over 500 contractor facilities in 37 US states and in 16 countries.”
Raoul shook his head slowly.
Marcus leaned forward. “And that’s when things are going well on the ISS.”
Raoul pressed Marcus. “Where do you see this consistent level of effort elsewhere?”
Marcus paused. “On the same scale? Then, in the military. How about your company, Raoul?”
“We thrive on cooperation, but not at that scale.” Raoul pressed again, “What about some of the organisations operating globally in your industry?”
“Chalk and cheese.” Marcus didn’t hesitate.
Raoul played devil’s advocate. “There’s a distinction to be made here my friend. They’re not flying a space station.”
“True, but I wonder if they remember their purpose, why they’re in the FM business. This shapes everything they do.”
“Carry on. I want to see where this is going.”
“Disconnects rule the roost, Raoul. By contrast, elsewhere there’s an Aus university running a highly innovative program for its graduates. It equips them to thrive in the global economy, to enable them to constantly adapt and remain relevant in the face of disruption and uncertainty.”
Raoul’s eyes lit up. “I need to pay this uni a visit; they sound like my kind of people!”
“This initiative is unique because it allows graduates to conceptualise, construct and practise internal innovation projects that are
– wait for it – aligned with the university’s long-term vision and strategy. How insightful!”
“Walking the talk.”
Both voiced: “Purpose! Cooperation and Innovation.” They laughed.
“The 13 initiatives are all team focused and fully subscribed,” Marcus went on. “One of the teams focuses on improving the capacity to learn through feedback. Data that tracks student engagement and their learning behaviours is analysed. Reports are generated highlighting learning progress – individual- and team-based – pinpointing areas of personalised improvement.”
“Another team uses AI and machine learning to mimic the function of a teaching assistant, allowing lecturers to direct their focus towards answering complex questions, engaging in deeper discussions and encouraging greater student interaction.” Marcus laughed. “It’s light years ahead of my uni days, which didn’t equip me for anything of consequence!”
Marcus continued. “I’ve not observed any property or FM focused corporate doing similar with their employees. Oh, and one other team has designed a chatbot initiative through Facebook Messenger to provide a networked, immediate response regarding facility enquiries. They collect this data through the chatbot to highlight and illustrate the state of campus facilities to predict future failures and so improve resource allocation.”
“To develop critical thinking about an ongoing issue for them arising from their physical environment. Now, if graduates can do it, why can’t paid professionals?”
“So, the ISS?”
“You’ll appreciate the remoteness and criticality of the ISS. I’ll relate the maintenance and reliability thing another time, but referring to my second point, one of the flight directors, when asked about collaboration and learning, said: ‘We train hard, not only on failure recognition and resolution, but also on how to think ahead to the implications of the next possible failure and how to protect for it. We have a culture of developing creative solutions, bred out of the mind-set that failure is not an option. For a flight controller, when you’re not on console and hear that something failed, you feel bad or the team that is dealing with the issue. That said, on the inside you’re wishing you could be there, helping to resolve it. This is a key tenet to our training and what it means to be a part of mission operations – not just for ISS, but for any program we support.’”
Raoul nodded appreciatively. “Impressive!”
“He also said, ‘…part of the Johnson Mission Operations Directorate’s mantra is plan, train, fly. Lessons learned are documented and folded back into planning and operations, but also into training for crews and flight controllers. They are built into everything.’”
“Any lessons for you?” Raoul asked.
“When I was focusing just on the astronaut effort the flight director reminded me of the bigger picture. It was a good lesson for me!”
“You are the apprentice, don’t forget.” Raoul grinned.
“I listened to a professor of neuroscience from the University of Southern California. He was highlighting the current modes of learning generally used. He sees this global ‘cognitive crisis’, as he calls it, being solved with – let me recall – personalised learning, multi-modal techniques and tools, closed loop feedback with data-led interventions, role playing, games and experience. He discusses things like ‘motion capture physiology’ and ‘augmented virtual environments’ in the learning sphere. It’s a bit off-topic I know, but these principles are not too dissimilar from my NASA and uni examples. There are lessons to be learned for our industry.”
“You mean in terms of its future relevance?”
“Yes. Which brings me to my second, second point.” Marcus laughed. “OK, my third point. The purpose of the ISS is never forgotten. It drives the collective effort and behaviours of all involved and there are queues of people wanting to get involved. We should be following suit in our industry.”
“So, what are you going to do next?”
“Story-tell what I’m learning and encourage our industry to connect with and embrace initiatives and principles like these. Maybe even provide a reason for highly charged graduates like these to focus their business energy in my industry.” ●
This article is part of Graham Constable’s regular column ‘Connections’, published in Facility Management magazine. You can follow Marcus and Harry’s journey in every issue of FM.
Image: 123RF’s nasaimages © 123RF