Packing for Mods

By Simmons, Linda C. | Mortgage Banking, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Packing for Mods


Simmons, Linda C., Mortgage Banking


A long-standing space enthusiast, I was recently deflated by the rescheduling of the next-to-last space shuttle launch from a Monday to a Tuesday, and then to Wednesday--all within a six-hour span a mere two days before the scheduled launch. For an outing that was planned years ago, it was a gentle reminder that, even after all this time, an electrical wire and Mother Nature can still hold all of our space travel innovations hostage.

Though my desire to view a launch is as old as the space program itself, the urge was heightened by Mary Roach's new book, Packing for Mars, a rather thorough look at the nuances of humans traveling weightless and somewhat compacted for at least 500 days (the expected duration of a trip to, three months on, and a return from Mars). As jaw dropping as the prospect of going to Mars is (for a space junkie), how much we've learned from getting ready to travel in space is even more mind-boggling.

I'm not talking about Tang[R] and Velcro[R].

One immensely impressive aspect of space travel is how much planning is done. There is an endless stream of parallel paths under consideration with an array of processes requiring standalone and convergent simulations and testing. Bevies of innovative, scary-smart, highly devoted and very focused professionals attempt to define and conquer the unknown of space from earth, itself a tough nut to crack.

Training is front and center, and an astronaut may train for 10 years before a mission. Even with all the planning, processing, training and testing, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) places considerable emphasis on the role of a mission post-mortem as yet one more input to planning, processes, simulations, testing and training. By many standards, NASA's run is considered pretty successful.

But not completely successful.

NASA's performance is both public and human. At one point in time it was also highly visible, a constant on our American radar. But 21st-century metrics are different and, with budgetary emphases shifting, the last manned spaceflight is scheduled for early 2011. Though unimaginable in the 20th century, the 21st century will find the U.S. astronauts hitching rides to the International Space Station with the Russians.

Ever looking for innovations to be learned from other industries, my weekend immersion into Packing for Mars was intended to be a diversion from the "normal" day-to-day immersion in the Making Home Affordable (MHA) program and its Home Affordable Modification Program-related (HAMP-related) challenges. Instead of a step away from the normal, there were notable aspects of the book--and space travel--that suggested mortgage has its own Mars mission challenges.

Are there lessons to be learned from space travel? Honorable mentions include the following.

The management of a complex and highly technical program is a technology unto itself. Perhaps NASA's greatest contribution is management as a technology. At the height of the Apollo program, over a quarter of a million people were managed through a single Apollo Program Office. At the time it was unparalleled, and five decades later it remains a highly accessible and well-documented effort.

Note to self: Program transparency may be one of the best predictors of program success. If you can't tell how and why something was developed and used, it's nearly impossible to measure its success.

NASA also excelled at having one program office coordinate a plethora of activity with a gradual buildup of scale and sophistication through smaller programs. Not only is there no logical "loan workout program office" location, the depth and breadth of the problem would have swamped any structure instantly. Is there a way to fix this?

As proud as we are of the innovations in and around our space program, putting a crew into space is about the psychology, technology and politics of space travel. …

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