One of the more interesting conferences being organized is set to take place on April 8, 2016, at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. It is called “The Maintainers” and it focuses on what is the norm for engineering practice. It reacts to the emphasis on innovation in America, and plays off of the important 2014 book by Walter Isaacson, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. Historian Andrew Russell quipped that there needed to be a counter-history entitled, The Maintainers: How a Group of Bureaucrats, Standards Engineers, and Introverts Made Technologies That Kind of Work Most of the Time. Since then many people interested in science and technology studies have been discussing these twin themes in history. This conference is an attempt to bring together some of those thinking about the idea of maintenance of technological systems.
I am proposing a paper for this meeting entitled, “A Clash of Engineering Cultures? NASA Engineers, R&D Culture, and the Space Shuttle as an Operational System.” My abstract is as follows, and I would welcome any thoughts that anyone might have on it.
Abstract: The aerospace engineering culture of NASA emphasizes innovation and the development of new technologies, and those who go to work for the space agency have long been attracted by the thrill of tackling new and unresolved problems. In its first twenty-five years, seemingly, NASA had a new R&D project constantly underway and design engineers happily moved from one to another of these efforts. This was largely the norm until the first orbital flight of the Space Shuttle in 1981. At that point, the program was intended to become operational, providing relatively airline-like space access. This meant that the bulk of the research, development, and testing for the Space Shuttle would be halted—NASA officials intended to pursue only modest upgrades thereafter—as the vehicle would open orbital space to “routine” operations. The Space Shuttle, of course, never delivered “routine” spaceflight and its flights were never airline-like. Most of the explanations for the shuttle’s failure to deliver on this promise emphasize its experimental status, its different flight requirements, and its advanced technology.
Those explanations are fine as far as they go, but in addition the NASA engineering culture emphasizing innovation and R&D ensured that those who were a part of the shuttle program constantly sought to upgrade the system rather than maintaining and flying it as is common among airlines. The result was that none of the orbiters were identical, and that constant efforts to alter shuttle technology meant that no two flights were even similar. The “maintainers” were not dominant at NASA and the constant modification of the technology ensured that there was never an opportunity to operate it efficiently. This paper will explore this theme in the 35-year history of the Space Shuttle program and offer some thoughts on the clash between the divergent ideology of R&D versus maintenance in the context of NASA and the Space Shuttle. As such it addresses one of the central questions asked in the conference’s Call for Papers: “How does labor focused on novelty and innovation differ from labor focused on maintenance and conservation?” To this I would ask another: “How do these divergent engineering cultures interact and achieve useful synergy?”
Please give me your comments. Am I off base?